pressure group, body, organized or unorganized, that actively seeks to promote its particular interests within a society by exerting pressure on public officials and agencies. Pressure groups direct their efforts toward influencing legislative and executive branches of government, political parties, and sometimes general public opinion.
A major area of concentration for pressure groups in the United States is the Congress, which may draw up legislation affecting the interests of the group (see lobbying). Through promises of financial support or of votes by interest group members at the next election, the organization hopes to persuade certain legislators, especially appropriate committee chairmen, to endorse favorable legislation. This is one of the reasons that incumbents, regardless of party, receive the preponderance of campaign funds.
Much effort is also expended in influencing executive decisions, because the bureaucracy often possesses considerable discretion in implementing legislation. This is especially true of the independent regulatory agencies (e.g., the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission). Such agencies are especially open to the influence of those they regulate because of their continuing relationship with those they oversee; they receive much more sporadic attention from possible countervailing forces such as Congress or public opinion.
Political parties are also targets for pressure groups. However, because influencing public policy rather than electing a certain candidate is the aim of an interest group, most groups avoid heavy involvement with one party and generally remain at least formally nonpartisan. Some large pressure groups make a considerable effort to mold public opinion by means of mailing campaigns, advertising, and use of the communications media. On the other hand, there are other groups, especially the more powerful organizations representing narrow interests, that prefer to have their activities and influence go unnoticed by the public at large.
Because any particular pressure group reflects the interests of only a part of the population, it is argued that such organizations are contrary to the interests of the general public. However, it is pointed out that some interest groups supply legislators with much needed information, while others, such as the labor unions, perform a broad representative function. The power of an interest group is usually dependent on the size of its membership, the socioeconomic status of its members, and its financial resources. There are a great many categories of interest groups, including economic, patriotic, racial, women's, occupational, and professional groups. The AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Legion, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws are examples of well-known American pressure groups.
See V. O. Key, Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups (5th ed. 1964); G. McConnell, Private Power and American Democracy (1967); M. Lipsky, Protest in City Politics (1969); D. Truman, Governmental Process (2d ed. 1971); S. Miller, Special Interest Groups in American Politics (1983); J. D. Greenstone, ed., Public Values and Private Power in American Politics (1984).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.