Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Legislation, Political Context, and Interest Group Behavior

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Legislation, Political Context, and Interest Group Behavior

Article excerpt

It is well documented that the number of interest groups lobbying a piece of legislation in Congress varies greatly. While most legislation generates little to no activity, the number of groups interested in a bill can grow into the hundreds. The challenge for scholars is to explain these behavioral differences. Using a population ecology approach to explain interest-group populations, it is argued that the number of groups lobbying a bill is influenced by the political context. Using data generated by the Lobbying Disclosure Act, this article demonstrates how the actions of members of Congress can both stimulate and suppress lobbying activity.

Keywords: interest groups; lobbying; Congress

As the 104th Congress entered its final months in session, two bills dealing with water pollution regulations and natural resource management (H.R.s 961 and 1141) had been passed by the House and sat in the Senate awaiting action. Ultimately, the Senate never took any action on either bill, and as the 104th Congress passed into history, so did these bills. This is a fairly common occurrence and would likely go unnoticed by interested observers as just another example of how difficult it is for a single piece of legislation to make it out of Congress. Yet, on closer inspection, these two bills were not simply forgotten by everyone in Washington. Interest groups exhibited markedly different behaviors with regard to these two bills. According to the lobbying reports interest groups are required to file by the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995, nearly one hundred groups were actively working on H.R. 961 in the second half of 1996, while only one group was interested in H.R. 1141. What triggered such drastically different behavior?

This type of discrepancy from one bill to another in the level of interest-group participation is not unique. In their work, Baumgartner and Leech (2001) provide scholars with perhaps the most comprehensive demonstration of this phenomenon. Using data generated by the LDA, they sample 137 issues to analyze the distribution of interest-group populations. They find significant variation across issue areas in the number of active lobbying organizations, with interest-group populations often consisting of a single member but occasionally growing to more than three hundred. While this demonstrates the vast differences in interest-group participation from one issue to another, the question still remains: how does one explain such large differences in the size of interest-group populations?

Traditional Approaches to Interest-Group Study

A large portion of the traditional approaches to the study of interest-group activity have focused on either the groups themselves or the characteristics of individual legislators. Scholars concerned with group characteristics have primarily been motivated by Olson's (1965) classic work outlining the inherent difficulties found when individuals seek to achieve collective goals. As a result, this research revolves around identifying group resources that help them overcome these collective-action problems, such as financial support, the number of active members, and size of professional staff (Gais and Walker 1991; Schlozman and Tierney 1986; Smith 1984). Group resources are not limited to those directly observable within the group, however, but extend to more indirect resources available to groups, such as the level of support for the organization found in a legislator's constituency (Rothenberg 1989; Wright 1990) and also the ease with which groups can find like-minded coalition partners (Berry 1989; Carpenter, Esterling, and Lazer 2004; Schlozman and Tierney 1986).

Scholars focused on the characteristics of legislators have demonstrated how these individuals can essentially draw lobbyists to them. The characteristic eliciting the most theoretical and empirical attention has been legislators' policy preferences and whether or not these makes them a friend, foe, or fence sitter in the eyes of lobbyists (Ainsworth 1997; Austen-Smith and Wright 1992, 1994; Bauer, Pool, and Dexter 1963; Baumgartner and Leech 1996; Hansen 1991; Hayes 1981; Milbrath 1963; Rothenberg 1992). …

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