In Washington D.C., pressure groups have three main points of access from where they can try to influence the decisions of the Federal government: Congress, the bureaucracy and officials within the Executive and, to a limited extent, the judiciary.

Pressure groups can appear as witnesses at the investigative hearings held by committees of Congress. They usually prepare what they are going to say beforehand and answer the questions put to them by committee members. Pressure groups often discuss strategies with a member of the committee who might advise on the tactics the pressure group should us to further their aims.

Pressure groups might attempt to make personal contact with Congressmen. This is usually carried out in an informal manner in either the legislator’s office or at an even more informal gathering such as over drinks.

Pressure groups are increasingly trying to gain contacts with the personal aides of Congressmen. An aide might give advice to a Congressman and therefore might influence his/her thoughts on a particular issue. As the role of a member of Congress is expanding, so the work done by aides is also expanding, therefore making them an ideal ‘target’ for pressure groups.

Pressure groups will also lobby members of Congress to approach other members of Congress on their behalf. Meetings can also be arranged between bureaucrats and important constituency figures who are sympathetic to the cause of a pressure group – so that they can influence their member of Congress. 

Pressure groups also try to influence public opinion through the use of the media. To influence members of Congress, pressure groups often organise letter writing campaigns from constituents in a bid to show how widespread a particular view is. The major negative with this approach is that a large quantity of mail with the same slant to it rarely serves a positive purpose and is frequently ignored. A few supportive letters from influential members of a constituency may serve a far more beneficial purpose – though even this approach cannot guarantee success.

Pressure groups might also use political protest in an effort to succeed. Marches and demonstrations are designed to attract media attention with the hope that such attention might ‘catch the eye’ of the relevant members of Congress. The civil rights movement in the early 1960’s used this tactic; the “Million Man March” in Washington organised by the Nation of Islam gained spectacular world-wide media interest as did the May 2000 “Million Mom March” which focused on the issue of firearm laws.

However, these events tend to stick in peoples minds only for a short while and their impact can be equally as short. Direct action in terms of demonstrations can get out of hand and the public image of a pressure group can be tarnished if violence or civil disobedience is associated with that pressure group. Also demonstrations cannot guarantee success – especially if the federal government feels that a demonstration is a direct challenge to its authority – the actions of the police in Seattle in 2000 during the World Trade meeting whereby ‘anarchists’ and other assorted groups were dealt with in a physical manner, was supported by many in authority at city, state and national level. Those pressure groups that had planned to peacefully demonstrate against globalisation, found that their beliefs, requirements etc. were all submerged by the media coverage of the violence and the police reaction to this challenge to civil order.

Pressure groups do have the ability to influence elections though by how much is open to debate. Certainly, the larger pressure groups with bases in Washington D.C. do have the ability to raise large sums of money to be spent under the rules of electoral funding. Pressure groups, in recent years, have taken to setting up Political Action Committees (PAC’s) during election year so that they can part-fund the expenses of certain politicians sympathetic to their cause.

Each PAC can only give $5000 for each separate election to a candidate for Congress. Since 1974, there has been a large growth in PAC’s and by the start of the 1990’s over 4000 were registered with the Federal Election Committee (FEC).

The logic behind PAC’s is simple. Electioneering in America costs a great deal of money and for politicians any money received serves a good purpose. Therefore, pressure groups believe that a successful member of Congress who has been part-funded by a pressure group will be suitably generous in his/her support of their views. It would seem logical that those part-financed by a pressure group would have already demonstrated at the least some public sympathy for the cause supported by that pressure group.

The statistics for elections, would tell a pressure group that an incumbent member of Congress has a far greater chance of re-election than a challenger. In recent elections for Congress (a Representative stands for 2 years and a Senator for 6 years so there are very frequent elections to Congress), 80% of the money donated by pressure group PAC’s has gone to those in office. For pressure groups, access to powerful political figures is very important.

By funding a candidate’s election campaign, a PAC cannot attempt to ‘buy’ the support of that candidate and the activities of pressure groups are regulated by acts of Congress. In 1909, a law was introduced that made it illegal to bribe or attempt to bribe a member of Congress. The 1946 Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act was very specific in its purpose : individuals and organisations that are “principally” involved in paid lobbying activities must register and file reports on money spent “to aid the passage or defeat of any legislation by Congress.” The one major loophole in this act is the definition of “principally”; many pressure groups have not registered and do not file reports as they feel that lobbying is not their principal function.

There is no evidence to believe that members of Congress are bribed today but some pressure groups are famed for the lavish hospitality they provide for those in Congress.

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