It is natural for Americans to be apprehensive about interest groups. Certainly, our Founding Fathers were. They fretted about the mischiefs of faction and designed a political system that, they hoped, would make it difficult for factions to prevail. During the 1960s, there was some evidence to suggest that special interest groups dominated decision making within administrative agencies, especially regulatory agencies. During the 1970s, as public interest group participation mushroomed, it appeared that interest groups were busting out all over, resulting in more balanced interest representation but also in potential threats to reasoned decision making. During the 1980s, reasoned decision making became institutionalized, possibly at the expense of interest representation. Where does this leave us today? And where are we heading?
One possibility is that interest groups have declined in importance. That, at any rate, is the perception of federal civil servants, whose judgment deserves serious consideration. The root cause of that perception would seem to be that their contacts with interest groups are less extensive than they used to be. If legislation restricting lobbying by nonprofit organizations is passed, such contacts could diminish even further. There is, however, another possibility that needs to be further investigated, and that is that interest groups are as influential as ever but that they are increasingly acting through surrogates. When a congressional subcommittee chairperson extracts concessions from a federal agency, is he or she pursuing a personal agenda or an interest group agenda? When a federal court overturns an administrative agency decision, can that edict be traced to the ingenuity or perseverance of a particular interest group? When the Office of Management and Budget jawbones with an agency over a proposed rule, does that reflect technical objections to cost-benefit calculations or the reservations of an unnamed interest group? To understand interest groups better, we need to recognize that they often act in tandem with political institutions in an effort to influence other political institutions, such as the federal bureaucracy. If our research focus shifts in that direction, we may be better able to understand the complex relationship between administrative agencies and interest groups acting in concert with legislators, judges, and political executives.