Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Drawing Lobbyists to Washington: Government Activity and the Demand for Advocacy

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Drawing Lobbyists to Washington: Government Activity and the Demand for Advocacy

Article excerpt

Using an agenda-setting approach, we show the interaction between the growth of groups and the growth of government. A pooled time-series analysis of more than 45,000 lobby registration reports from 1996 to 2000 and measures of government activity from the Policy Agendas Project indicates that groups become active in Washington, D.C., in large part because of pre-existing levels of government activity in the issue-areas that concern them. The growth in the range and number of activities of government has created incentives for organizations of all kinds to mobilize, whether they are supporters or opponents of new government programs. We find that levels of government attention in an issue-area explain the level of interest-group lobbying more consistently than does government spending or the number of business firms in that area. We conclude with a discussion of the need for theories of group mobilization to include attention to the demand-creating actions of government itself.

The growth and proliferation of interest groups in the United States has long been considered a major cause of growth in the size and scope of the U.S. government. Scholars taking a historical approach have linked the rise of social movements in the Progressive Era to government expansion (Tichenor and Harris 2002/2003), while across the discipline, public choice theorists have pointed to rent-seeking by interest groups as a driving force behind government regulation and spending (e.g., Buchanan and Tullock 1962). The myriad social movements over the past four decades have led to new programs affecting women, minorities, consumers, and the environment, while professional communities have successfully convinced government to get more involved in health care, education, transportation, and other areas. Groups are, or should be, central to any explanation of the growth of government. The reverse is also true. Groups have mobilized in Washington in response to the growth of activities of government. As government has grown more active in a greater range of areas of public policy, organized interests have followed. Government can provide the incentive for new groups to arise and for existing groups to mobilize around a particular set of issues. Governmental patrons have provided startup funds for new groups (Walker 1983, 1991; Smith and Lipsky 1993, Cigler and Nownes 1995), while governmental programs have provided something worth organizing to protect (e.g., Campbell 2003). Whether they are supporters or opponents of new government programs, groups clearly co-evolve with government in a dynamic progression that leads each to affect the other.

Within this reciprocal process, a puzzle remains. How and why do certain issues and certain issue-areas become the focus of interest-group attention and lobbying? Baumgartner and Leech (2001) have shown that among interest groups in Washington, the majority of the lobbying is focused on a small fraction of the issues. What causes that mobilization? The exigencies of collective action suggest that it is unlikely that groups could be driving this process alone, but that in fact growth in the interest-group population must depend on the growth of government itself. Although interest-group entrepreneurs may be instrumental in suggesting new policy alternatives, in most cases government actors must act on those suggestions if the lobbying community in that policy domain is to grow beyond a select few.

In this article we provide detailed evidence to document this close relationship between government activity and interest-group communities, and we work to further specify the relationship.1 The theory we develop draws on ideas from theories of collective action, social movement mobilization, and population ecology. Our focus is the role of the political environment-and in particular, government attention or lack thereof-in encouraging or discouraging interest group mobilization. We predict that levels of lobbying will increase as government activity increases, but we expect these processes to be issue-specific. …

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