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Interest groups influencing policymaking: lesson overview

A high-level overview of interest groups and their influence on public policy.  
Interest groups facilitate citizen participation in government, organizing individuals to take collective action through voting, fundraising, and disseminating information about their issues to elected officials and the public.

Key terms

"free rider" problemA problem of group behavior that occurs when an individual can receive a public benefit without making a personal contribution of money or effort. For example, a person might listen to public radio but never contribute to the station, assuming that other donors will pay to keep it operating.
interest groupA formal or informal association of people seeking to influence governmental policy in favor of their interests; interest groups may represent social causes, economic and corporate interests, or religious and ideological interests.
iron triangleA longstanding, mutually-beneficial relationship between an interest group, congressional committee, and bureaucratic agency devoted to similar issues; for example, the American Association of Retired Persons, the Congressional Subcommittee on Aging, and the Social Security Administration all work closely together on issues related to senior citizens.
issue networkA group of individuals, public officials, and interest groups that form around a particular issue, usually a proposed public policy that they wish to support or defeat.
lobbyingSeeking to influence a public official on an issue; an interest group with a particular agenda may be known as its "lobby," for example "the tobacco lobby."
Photograph of a sign in the Maryland State House reading "No lobbyists beyond this point."
A sign in the Maryland State House prevents lobbyists from nearing the debate chamber. Image source: Daniel Huizinga

Key takeaways

Competing policymaking interests: There are many competing interest groups, and they can take a variety of forms, but all seek to influence public policy in favor of the needs of their constituents. Not all interest groups have an equal impact on policy, however, as some have more funds, greater access to decision-makers, and more committed members.

Review questions

Explain the free rider problem in your own words. Can you think of another example of the free rider problem in society?
Pundits often complain about the influence of “special interest groups” on politics. Name one positive effect of interest group participation in the political process and one problem associated with interest group participation.

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