Pressure groups are vital to a democratic society and the pluralist model suggests the more groups the better as it indicates a thriving democracy as opposed to authoritarian rule which diminishes the right to gather.
In the UK strong party discipline means that MP’s are more likely to listen to the arguments of the party leadership backed up by party whips than those of pressure groups. Pressure groups may persuade MP’s to question ministers, but when it comes to votes MP’s nearly always ‘toe’ the party line. Even if MP’s were induced to vote it is unlikely that enough people could be persuaded so that it genuinely worries the government. Only in ‘free’ votes on matters of conscience do pressure groups find opportunity for greater influence. The current debate on hybrid animal human embryos has allowed for heavy influence from pressure groups from various religious denominations.
Dissimilarly the US party system is weak as party leadership is less powerful and the whips are ineffectual. House and Senate members are not even dependent on the party for re-nomination due to the direct primaries system. This means election campaigns are candidate centred affairs allowing for pressure groups to persuade the candidate to support their cause on his election platform. The way in which pressure groups readily spread propaganda against those who do not support their cause can be particularly damaging to election campaigns so they hold power in the sense that candidates will avoid offending them by being sympathetic to their cause.
In addition US pressure groups have further weapons available to them in the form of K Street lobbyists. These are hired by pressure groups for their accurate detailed information on specific areas. The fact that there are roughly 60 lobbyists to every Congress person is suggestive of a very friendly climate in which pressure groups can try to gain power. The lobbyists try to make personal contact which can be carried out over dinner or in the legislator’s office or if this is not possible they may try to influence the personal aides who in turn may influencer the legislator. They also lobby members to approach other members on their behalf or they meet with powerful bureaucrats or important constituency figures that will help persuade. The extent to which lobbyists and the attached pressure groups are able to wield power in the US is exemplified in the case of Phil Cooney, an ex-oil lobbyist who edited policy papers on the environment to water them down while in the Bush administration.
In the UK lobbyists are also used for pressure groups although to a lesser degree of success. Like their US counterparts they usually possess a wealth of contacts and they seek MP’s and peers who are sympathetic to their cause. Pressure groups may use the lobbyists to persuade an MP to table an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling for change which will help gauge the level of parliamentary support. They may also ask another MP to ask questions of ministers and see if an MP will submit a 10 minute Rule Bill or even better a Private Member’s Bill. UK pressure groups do have avenues in which they can grasp political power, but pressure groups that try to persuade a minister of a cause that is against party policy is likely to be quickly shunned. The party persuades an MP, not the pressure group.
Notwithstanding, pressure groups also find it difficult to exert influence in the judiciary as the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty puts strict limits on the power of the courts. Any law passed is constitutional – the UK courts can declare ministers to have acted beyond the powers bestowed upon them but this is a much lesser power than the US judicial review.
Pressure groups in the US often sponsor cases; hoping to bring them all the way to the Supreme Court for final constitutional arbitration. Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, was famously sponsored by the NAACP. US pressure groups have also been effective in blocking court nominations of which they disapprove. Liberal groups successfully defeated the nomination of Robert Bork and played a major role in the grilling Clarence Thomas received in front of the Senate Judicial Committee. This shows that pressure groups are often powerful within the judicial branch whereas UK groups are almost completely ineffectual.
However, it is in the executive branch that pressure groups can be powerful in the UK. Since corporatism in the 60’s many pressure groups have been able to maintain there ‘insider’ status with relevant governmental departments and agencies. This is highlighted in the vast amount of advisory committees and quangos that have been set up as well the legal obligations on government departments to consult such agencies. This power has continued to increase under a Labour government which has created hundreds of quangos since coming to power –the Arts Council and Sport England. This has given pressure groups a semi-institutionalised role at the heart of the UK government.
Despite this it is important to note that this does not apply to outsider and promotional groups who instead thrive on publicity and do not partake in the covert bargaining that insider groups undergo. They publicise an issue that is usually at odds with government policy or ideology and so are rarely powerful in their persuasive techniques, although the Countryside Alliance managed to water down laws against fox hunting which shows that some are still very powerful. Also, not all sectional groups get there own way because of the institutional nature since corporatism; the recent NUT strike showed pressure groups cannot get their own way.
The executive branch is also fertile ground for US pressure groups as federal departments and agencies are popular targets for pressure group activity. The Cabinet head of office will often be willing to support pressure groups if it fights for his department's cause. The president has an invaluable role in shaping policy priorities so pressure groups may persuade those around him who can then advise him in a way that pleases the pressure group. Also the way in which many parts of the federal government enjoy independence from other parts of government gives pressure groups a point of access. These points of access can lead to ‘iron-triangles’ which has been seen with veterans groups and the relative committee and federal agency.
Pressure groups in the USA bemefit from friendlier constitutional and legislative frameworks; the 1st Amendment safeguards rights of speech, expression and association. There are also the ‘Sunshine laws’ which allow inquiry into government affairs and a thriving freedom of information act. In the UK pressure groups battle against the Official Secrets Act as well as a Freedom of Information Act that is far more limited than the US. The US allows for a far greater number of access points which is caused by the federal system and the willingness of courts to hear cases that are of political significance. On this evidence it would have to be suggested that US pressure groups hold more power but the democratic worth of this can be debated.