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Iron triangles and issue networks

Iron triangles and issue networks shape American government. Iron triangles involve interest groups, Congress, and bureaucracies influencing each other. Interest groups lobby for their cause, Congress passes laws, and bureaucracies execute them. Issue networks are informal groups that influence interest groups and Congress through activism and scrutiny.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Now a related idea to just what a bureaucracy is in our federal government. Another question is how do they get influenced? Now one idea that you might see in many American government courses is the idea of an iron triangle. So an iron triangle describes how various parties might influence each other and what they might do for each other. So let's say that there is a group that is very interested in building more roads. Maybe there's a group that represents all the road contractors in the United States, and they would love more highways to be built because there'd be more business for them. And so then that interest group, who wants more highways to be built, they might say, hey, congresspeople, we want more highways built. The way that they try to get favor with Congress is through electoral support. Now what kind of electoral support could they give? Well, they could donate money to the congressmen directly. They could donate money to political parties. They could try to activate the electorate to vote for a congressperson who favors their agenda more than someone else. In exchange, congresspeople could do a few things. They could provide more funding to the bureaucracy that is going to build roads, and we just talked about that bureaucracy in the executive branch. That bureaucracy, not only might they build more roads, but if they like those interest groups, they might lower their regulations on them. They might give them more contracts as they build those roads. Another thing that Congress could do for the interest group is pass friendly legislation. So maybe pass a law that makes it easier to build roads in a certain part of the country or in a certain way. But the reason why it's called an iron triangle, it's not just about what do interest groups want. It's also what does Congress want? What does the bureaucracy want, and what do they get from the other two parties? So we already talked about how Congress can get electoral support from interest groups, but what can it get from a bureaucracy? Congress passes laws and a budget, but a bureaucracy, for the most part, decides how to execute on that. And so if they are aligned with Congress, they might execute on those laws with a little bit more energy. If the bureaucracy, for one reason or another, is not as gung ho about those laws, they might drag their feet a little bit. And from the bureaucracy point of view? Well, we already talked about how they could get funding and political support from Congress. You see that on that part of the triangle there. What do they get from the interest groups? Well, we already talked about the congressional support, which they can do by supporting congresspeople who might support favorable policies for the bureaucracy. The interest groups might be able to directly lobby Congress, which means, hey, we're going to meet with Congress. We might even draft some things for the policy agenda. Now a related idea to an iron triangle in interest groups that you might also hear in an American government course is the notion of issue networks. One way to think about issue networks is they are essentially more informal than interest groups. Interest groups can be part of an issue network, but an issue network can be, let's say, you and I start to get really activated about something we get on TV, and then we start mailing our congresspeople, and we start blogging about it, and we start getting a following, and then that starts to influence an interest group. Or an interest group joins with us, and then we start to send messages to Congress. We start to provide more scrutiny on the bureaucracy. Then we would be an issue network, and as I mentioned, issue networks might not be formal. They might not be a formal, let's say, lobbying group or interest group, but they can also have influence in the same way that an interest group does.