Is there such a thing as a public lobby group?
February 5, 2010 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Is there such a thing as a public lobby group?

I can't find anything on Google or AskMe that really sticks out (maybe it's called something I'm ignorant of). But lobbies are really the seat of influence in the US government, as the administration's kid gloves on the failed banks and the health insurers has demonstrated.

The public probably couldn't match their influence, but I'm wondering what would happen if people, en masse, took on one pet cause at a time, pooled their resources, got a few non-evil private donors, and got some politicos on their teet.

People volunteer to help campaigns and things, boosting for one ambitious jerkoff or another (Obama), but I'm thinking in terms of contributing as a single organization with the expressed purpose of peddling influence or owning an empty suit and making them their bitch.

I know a lot of moving parts have to work, and we can't even get half the country to agree that affordable insurance is good.

Pardon my naïvete; I've got a soft spot for lost causes.
posted by evil holiday magic to Law & Government (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You're just talking about hiring a lobbyist. Go to K street in Washington, DC. If you've got more money than the next guy they will represent your interests for you. Not really sure what you're asking other than that.
posted by dfriedman at 6:40 PM on February 5, 2010

In Australia, GetUp! is a bit like what you're describing. It played a small but significant role in the last general election, funding advertisements to counter those paid for by the business lobby and the then government. Of course, no lobby group can represent a true cross section of "the public". In GetUp!'s case, its participants are mostly young and broadly left-wing.
posted by embrangled at 6:48 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

As an example, you might want to look at GetUp, who are an Australian organisation that is sort of what you're talking about. They run campaigns where they'll email members for donations to lobby on particular issues. They're quite big on climate change, among other things.
posted by pompomtom at 6:51 PM on February 5, 2010

Well, you may not agree with them, but the Tea Party movement(s) probably fits into the notion of a self-organized citizens group.

I've been reading Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody, which actually is a reasonable description of how these sorts of groups are much, much easier to create with the Internet than before.
posted by chengjih at 6:55 PM on February 5, 2010

The public probably couldn't match their influence, but I'm wondering what would happen if people, en masse, took on one pet cause at a time, pooled their resources, got a few non-evil private donors, and got some politicos on their teet.

Pretty sure this is what nominally progressive issue groups try to do, at least in theory. I mean, the League of Conservation Voters lobbies to oppose corporate influence, as do many other such groups. I'll grant that there's less of a coherent "good guy" lobby on economic and banking issues, but that's pretty hard to organize around. There are groups like the Economic Policy Institute, but they sadly don't have a lot of influence. It's just hard to compete with corporate dollars!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 6:58 PM on February 5, 2010

The Clay Shirky reference gives your question some helpful context I think. What about MeetUp? Didn't that start during Howard Dean's campaign? It seems to have a lot of politically-oriented groups that conspire via the web.

And what about

The thing about these groups, though, is this: Washington, DC is an inherently conservative town (not conservatie in the political conext) and things get done in face to face meetings, not via social media. Perhaps that will change but I wouldn't hold my breath.
posted by dfriedman at 7:02 PM on February 5, 2010

You might look at Rauch's book GOVERNMENT'S END, which among other things is a discussion of the way that most special interest groups, paradoxically, understand themselves as serving the public interest.
posted by Mr. Justice at 7:07 PM on February 5, 2010

Are you talking about lobbying or direct financial contributions ("politicos on their teet")? There are many groups that lobby out there that aren't business-based. There are groups that try to influence the government for pretty much every group of people of significant size (from AAA to NAACP to AARP to Greenpeace). So, yes, there are many public lobby groups.

If you are talking about financial contributions to campaigns and such, then I'm not sure if organized public campaign contributions are that common. Certainly many private donors donate to campaigns. Those that give the most tend to be rich and arguably they have bought themselves a fair bit of influence.
posted by ssg at 7:10 PM on February 5, 2010

Many, many charitable organizations have 501(c)4 arms that allow them to engage in political lobbying. The ACLU, the NRA, NORML, whatever your pet cause, chances are, someone is lobbying for it, funded by donations from individuals.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that "the public" needs a lobbyist. "The public" is made up of millions of people, each of whom has an individual set of policy preferences. No one lobby could represent the interests of "the public," because members of the public very often disagree with one another.

Even lobbies you may not like are made up of "the public." Farmers who hire lobbyists to promote subsidies are "the public." Bankers are members of "the public," and when they lobby for laws you might disagree with, they're lobbying for things they believe will improve their lives and the lives of people they care about. Same with people who run businesses in health insurance or defense contracting or oil drilling. They're members of "the public," and when hired lobbyists work for them, they're representing the views of at least some portion of "the public."

I suspect that what you're really asking is something like, "can the lobbyists who work for causes I support ever have the power and influence that I see being wielded by lobbyists who work for causes I oppose?" The answer is yes. They'll do it by convincing a whole lot of people to each give a little money, or a few people to each give a whole lot of money. Which is the exact same strategy employed by people lobbying for causes you believe to be against the interests of the public.
posted by decathecting at 7:15 PM on February 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

US Public Interest Research Groups, Environment America, Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Counsel are examples of membership organizations whose employees include registered lobbyists. Now, the "registered lobbyists" working for these groups aren't wearing $2,000 suits and $500 shoes. But they are still registered lobbyists, working to influence the passage of legislation through Congress.
posted by alms at 7:36 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think of faith-based investment groups and faith organizations that have stock portfolios in order to lobby companies to make substantive social justice commitments. Of course, I now cannot remember the names of any of these organizations.
posted by parmanparman at 7:46 PM on February 5, 2010

What you're describing sounds an awful lot like the National Rifle Association, which has been impressively successful over the years.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:48 PM on February 5, 2010

What you're describing sounds an awful lot like the National Rifle Association

I was just going to say the same thing. However, the NRA does lots of non-lobbying activities, too, such as hunter safety courses and whatnot. In fact, the recreational shooting aspect of the organization came first, as a means to encourage military training among reservists, after the Civil War.

That's how this organization continues, and how you might want to structure yours -- laser focus on a single issue, and ancillary activities for which people can pay dues and subscriptions.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:20 PM on February 5, 2010

Sounds like Public Citizen qualifies.

(They also have state-based operations that focus on state legislatures. At least in Texas, they've been able to get things done... or at least been able to keep the big-money interests from getting 100% of their way 100% of the time.)
posted by ambient2 at 8:55 PM on February 5, 2010

OP, I think you fundamentally misunderstand how "lobbies" work and how they interact with the "public."

Nothing can stop the "public" from getting what it really wants and knows that it wants, and it doesn't need a single DC lobby-shop on a retainer to get it. Politicians and lobbyists spend much time and resources trying to identify those groundswells of public support or opposition and get in front of them (or out of the way of them). Many issues upon which people have incredibly strong feelings, but are strongly divided, are left to the political or judicial process outright and have so little lobbying they may as well have none at all. (Abortion, school prayer, gay marriage, the death penalty are all good examples; guns are a notable exception.)

For this reason, lobbyists do the vast majority of their work in narrowly confined spaces where there is no consensus and little strong public feeling: issues too esoteric for the public to understand, zero-sum battles between two special interests or favor seekers, or where there is a huge disproportion between cost and benefit to a special interest and corresponding benefit and cost to the public, and thus the special interest can win big because the public just doesn't care about the little it is losing.
posted by MattD at 9:16 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Quite a few Malaysian bloggers got into Parliament in the last election; indeed, the unprecedented success of the Opposition was largely due to the efforts of bloggers and local activists using the Web in a big way.
posted by divabat at 4:21 AM on February 6, 2010

To answer your original question, without addressing the more cynical approach you propose: my first thought was Common Cause.

From the letter announcing the formation of Common Cause: The first thing Common Cause will do is to assist you to speak and act in behalf of legislation designed to solve the nation’s problems. We are going to build a true citizens’ lobby – a lobby concerned not with the advancement of special interests but with the well-being of the nation. … One of our aims will be to revitalize politics and government.

We want public officials to have literally millions of American citizens looking over their shoulders at every move they make. We want phones to ring in Washington and state capitols and town halls. We want people watching and influencing every move that government makes.

Also, a directory of public interest law political advocacy groups.
posted by Snerd at 6:37 AM on February 6, 2010

The Grange.

posted by jgirl at 6:12 PM on February 8, 2010

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