Citizens' Groups and Lobbies

The First Amendment to the Constitution, by asserting the rights of free speech, free assembly and peaceful petition for the redress of grievances, provides the legal basis for so-called "special interests" or "lobbies." Any group has the right to demand that its views be heard -- by the public, by the legislature, by the executive branch and (through selective lawsuits) by the courts. Most attention in recent years has been focused on efforts by a proliferating number of public and private interest groups to influence the course of legislation.

One type of interest group that has grown in number and influence in recent years is the political action committee, or PAC. Political action committees are private, independent groups, organized around a single issue or set of issues, that contribute money to political campaigns for Congress or the presidency. PACs are limited in the amounts they can contribute directly to candidates in federal elections. There are no restrictions, however, on the amounts PACs can spend independently to advocate a point of view or to urge the election of candidates to office. PACs today number in the thousands.

Private interest groups usually have an economic stake in the policies they advocate. Business organizations will favor low corporate taxes and restrictions of the right to strike, whereas labor unions will support minimum wage legislation and protection for collective bargaining. Other private interest groups -- such as churches and ethnic groups -- are more concerned about broader issues of policy that can affect their organizations or their beliefs.

Public interest groups, in contrast, seek a collective good, the achievement of which will not selectively and materially benefit their own membership. This does not mean that such groups are necessarily correct in the positions they take, only that the element of profitable or selective self-interest is absent. Among the most prominent public interest (often called "citizens") groups to have emerged in the past two decades are those organized by Ralph Nader to protect the consumer.

Perhaps the largest public interest group is Common Cause, with more than 200,000 dues-paying members. Its main purpose is to reform governmental structures to make them more accountable to the public. A great variety of citizens' organizations are dedicated to protecting the natural environment and wildlife against such dangers as pesticides and excessive commercial development, and combatting air and water pollution.