Interest Groups and Campaign Finance Reform in the United States and Canada

Interest Groups and Campaign Finance Reform in the United States and Canada

by Robert G Boatright




"This book is a valuable contribution to the study of campaign finance in the U.S. and Canada. Its comparative analysis highlights the role of institutions in shaping group activity, the extraordinary role of interest groups in American electoral politics, and the inherent difficulty in regulating group activity without stifling debate. It belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in election finance law."
---Lisa Young, University of Calgary

"Boatright finds the right balance of perspective and real-world application to make this a truly informative and valuable read, even for those of us who play in the political arena.  He doesn't suffer from the myopia of political correctness that afflicts so many who write on campaign finance."
---Gregory Casey, President and CEO, Business-Industry PAC (BIPAC)

"A meticulously researched book that political scientists will find to be a serious contribution to the literature on campaign finance and interest groups."
---Peter Francia, East Carolina University

In the early 2000s, the United States and Canada implemented new campaign finance laws restricting the ability of interest groups to make political contributions and to engage in political advertising. Whereas both nations' legislative reforms sought to reduce the role of interest groups in campaigns, these laws have had opposite results in the two nations. In the United States, interest groups remained influential by developing broad coalitions aimed at mobilizing individual voters and contributors. In Canada, interest groups largely withdrew from election campaigns, and, thus, important voices in elections have gone silent. Robert G. Boatright explains such disparate results by placing campaign finance reforms in the context of ongoing political and technological changes.

Robert G. Boatright is Associate Professor of Political Science at Clark University.

Cover photo: © / alfabravoalpharomeo

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472051441
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 03/03/2011
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Robert G. Boatright is Associate Professor of Political Science at Clark University.

Robert G. Boatright's website

Robert G. Boatright's Active Learning and Research website

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Interest Groups and Campaign Finance Reform in the United States and Canada

By Robert G. Boatright


Copyright © 2011 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07144-9

Chapter One

Interest Group Studies in Canada and the United States

Within many subfields of political science, it has been possible to make advances in our knowledge of political institutions and behavior without placing the United States in a pivotal role. For example, many of the classic works on political parties, such as those of Duverger or Michels, have made enduring contributions to our knowledge of political parties as a feature of democracy despite the uneasy fit between American parties and those of other countries. The same cannot be said, however, about the study of organized interests—or at least the American and Canadian literature considered here provides no evidence of this phenomenon. Even early observers of American politics such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1966, 193) have contended that organized interests are a peculiarly American phenomenon. When one peruses Canadian literature on interest groups, one is struck by the fact that many of the basic claims made about interest groups are derived from studies of American interest group politics and that much of what is known about the role of formally recognized nongovernmental groups in politics is derived from the studies of, among others, Americanists E. E. Schattschneider, David Truman, Robert Dahl, and V. O. Key. Each of these studies began with a consideration of group politics within the framework of American political institutions, but perhaps because few other countries have as sustained a history of officially recognized groups within their political systems, these studies have been taken as starting points in looking at other countries in which groups subsequently developed independently of the party or class system.

Within the study of American politics, one striking claim in the early literature on interest groups was that groups tend to be created—or at least to be recognized—by politicians in ways that advance politicians' interests. Early in his landmark study of parties and groups (1964), Key discusses the dependence of groups on government. While Key begins by noting the centrality of parties to American politics, he quickly points out that one must understand group interests before seeking to understand parties:

The exercise of the power of governance consists in large degree in the advancement of legitimate group objectives, in the reconciliation and mediation of conflicting group ambitions, and in the restraint of group tendencies judged to be socially destructive. (17)

This claim wound up not being central in the 1950s pluralist literature, although it did become important for the "neopluralists" of the 1970s (Smith 2008, 22), who argued that politicians used groups strategically to communicate with the public. While this claim might be said to apply to groups in a general context—for example, to regional groups, ethnic groups, linguistic groups, classes, and so forth—Key and others writing after him applied this perspective in a slightly more narrow fashion to formally constituted nongovernmental organizations such as labor unions, business associations, and later what Berry (1999), a strong proponent of this neopluralist framework, denotes as "postmaterialist" groups such as environmental or civil rights organizations.

In this perspective, government has the ability to define the legal means by which groups can engage in politics and to alter the laws governing group activities when such alterations advantage those within government. Within the areas of legislative politics or electoral politics, such laws include defining the legal parameters of lobbying, campaign contributions, organizations' tax statuses, or organizations' rights to discuss political affairs with the public. Within twentieth-century American politics, some observers have taken the encouragement given by government to the formation of various interests, such as the Chamber of Commerce (Wilson 1981, 58–59), the prohibition on direct corporate or labor contributions to politicians, and the creation of political action committees to be political decisions aimed at the advantage of those whom these groups would support.

Yet while many students of interest groups generally accept the neo-pluralist conception, this perspective is rarely made explicit in studies of campaign finance or of interest groups' role in campaigns. In this chapter, I call attention to the common starting point of American and Canadian interest group studies, summarizing the role political institutions in the two countries have played in the development of the two nations' interest group literatures. Because of the greater role of political parties in the Canadian system, Canadian studies have stayed far closer to Key's original conception of groups as entities serving politicians than have American studies. Scholars have drawn on many examples of ways in which Canadian politicians have exerted control over groups, either restraining their activities or defining which types of group activities (or even which types of groups) are legitimate. These literatures provide the key to understanding two salient differences in the adaptations by groups in the two countries to changes in campaign finance law: first, why American reforms have only imperfectly sought to redirect groups' political activities, while Canadian reforms have sought to restrict them; and second, why American reforms have had little effect on those groups that wish to engage in electoral politics, while Canadian reforms have encouraged a framework in which many citizens see groups as an alternative to electoral politics.

To begin this argument, I consider three major areas of inquiry regarding interest groups: groups' acquisition and use of resources, groups' relationships with politicians, and groups' relationships with the public. Throughout, I begin with what is known about American groups before moving on to consider how our understanding of American groups can be enriched through comparison with Canada.

Group Resources

Within the American interest group literature, the most common resource categories are money, membership, and to a lesser extent group reputation. A group that has substantial financial resources but few members, for example, may effectively distribute money to politicians or conduct advertising campaigns, but it cannot necessarily influence elections by inspiring members to vote. Conversely, groups that have a large membership base but little money may influence election outcomes inexpensively (by encouraging members to support particular candidates) but may not have the ability to provide financial assistance to candidates. And a group with a reputation for policy expertise or for adherence to a particular point of view may influence politicians and sympathetic voters simply by virtue of endorsing a particular candidate or policy proposal. In some instances, groups with different types of resources can work closely together—for example, smaller groups can signal their preferences to wealthier groups, or coalitions between different group types can divide up the ways in which candidate support is provided.

One paradigm that seeks to distinguish group activities according to these resource characteristics is the "push/pull" distinction (see Boatright et al. 2003, 2006; Malbin 2003). This paradigm distinguishes between money that is "pushed" into the system by partisan or ideologically charged groups and money that is "pulled" into the system by rent-seeking politicians. This distinction roughly parallels the distinction often made between influence-seeking and access-seeking groups in politics. This paradigm also maps neatly onto different types of groups. Table 1.1 shows the Boatright et al. distinctions between group types according to their resources and their willingness to use their resources either directly to support political candidates or to advocate for issues independently of candidates.

This push/pull paradigm provides a convenient means of mapping political reforms onto group types, but it contains the assumption that within the American system, politicians can pick and choose among groups and advantage or disadvantage particular group types. This paradigm has not traditionally been used to analyze governmental control over group resources. A more common paradigm is the "hydraulic theory." In this theory, money, like water, will continue to seep into the political system. Reforms can change the direction that the money takes, but it will eventually seep back into the system through loopholes in the law. Arguments in favor of this theory range from those of reform advocates such as John McCain, who believe that reform will be needed at regular intervals to repair leaks in the system, to those of libertarian critics of group regulation, who have argued that the best means of addressing the role of money in politics is to provide clear channels for it to take and then to try to maximize transparency and provide voters with the tools to observe the flow of money into the system (see, e.g., Smith 2001, 220–25).

One can adjudicate between these two theories in two different ways. First, one cannot simply assume that wealthy organizations will be major political contributors or that large organizations will necessarily have politically active members. As table 1.2 shows, it is difficult to draw a line from any particular group type to its political activities. Many of the same organizations appear in each column, but important differences exist. Some of the largest groups in terms of membership (such as the AARP) do not engage in elections at all; some of the most influential groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are neither large nor wealthy in comparison to the other groups in the table. And many groups that have substantial resources adopt a relatively bipartisan strategy, giving small contributions to many candidates, while others spend heavily on independent advocacy. Whatever type of resources one is considering, they alone do not dictate political activity if the group is not motivated to engage in a particular type of politics.

However, if one draws a line in the reverse direction—from political activities to group characteristics—campaign contributions, advertising expenditures, and independent expenditures clearly map onto particular types of groups. Table 1.3 notes some of the patterns in which types of groups appear in each column of table 1.2. The descriptions in table 1.3 show that groups seek niches in their political activity that correspond closely to the types of resources the groups command.

To what extent can these American categories be used to make general claims about interest group politics in other nations? The motivations for political activity and the politicization of group members should be roughly similar in other democratic countries. Businesses, for example, can be expected in other countries to have similarly large resources but to lack the motivation to tie themselves to a strong ideology or to a particular political party when there is the risk that that party may not always hold power. Similarly, organized labor is likely to have a large membership base but one that is not in itself always prolabor (see Freeman 2003). And because individual members join precisely to advance the group's issues, issue groups may have dependable members and an incentive to educate the public about their issues, but these groups should vary in size and in the degree to which they wish to connect themselves to a particular political party. In broad strokes, then, these characteristics ought to be generalizable.

However, the activities linked to particular group types are not necessarily options in different countries. One might argue, for example, that advocacy groups may wish to educate the public about particular politicians' actions on issues of concern but may not necessarily have the legal means to do so or may not have the same means in different countries, or politicians may not provide the public with the information necessary to draw these connections.

Groups and Politicians

The American Perspective

Dating back to the Federalist Papers, the conventional American view has been that organized interests are a potentially harmful but unavoidable feature of politics. It is not uncommon for politicians to rail against "special interests," but more often than not, politicians define such interests primarily as those that oppose the politicians' own interests. During the explosion of interest group studies in the 1950s, many political scientists argued that groups could, in fact, be beneficial to politicians by aggregating the diffuse, often uninformed views of citizens, by providing heuristics for politicians in their decisions, and in providing technical expertise to which politicians might not otherwise have access. This theme remains a major thread in lobbying literature.

Politicians have at times encouraged the creation of groups for just such purposes. Beyond the creation of interest groups, the creation during the 1970s of political action committees (PACs), specifically for the purpose of providing group contributions to politicians, has often been read as a means by which politicians encouraged a particular type of group formation. A flurry of literature during the 1970s bemoaned the rise of PACs, arguing that American politicians were now more dependent on groups than on parties (for a review, see Sabato 1984). By the late 1990s, however, many political scientists argued that PACs provided a means by which group support for politicians could be diffused and that the soft money reforms of 1979 enabled parties to reassert control over groups (see, e.g., Parker and Coleman 2004). Politicians might be more dependent on groups in general but were not necessarily beholden to any one group or type of groups; too much depends on circumstances, popular support for an issue, a legislator's reelection prospects, and a host of other factors (see Baumgartner and Leech 1998, 128–34; Smith 1995). With the rise in party discipline within Congress during the 1990s and the increasing polarization between the parties, many groups were forced to take sides—or at least were encouraged by politicians to take sides. Groups were not necessarily subservient to the party organizations, but many of the more prominent groups became part of one or the other party network. By this point, talk about any opposition between groups and parties had become a thing of the past.

PACs proliferated during the 1970s, however, with their numbers growing from 608 in 1974 to 2,551 in 1980 (Ornstein, Mann, and Malbin 2002, 106). The number of PACs continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace, until it topped 4,000 by the early 1990s. It would be a stretch, however, to contend that more than a small number of these PACs sought to direct congressional activity. Most research on PACs contended that they were a means of ensuring access to members of Congress. The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 1980s, Tony Coelho, is often credited with having persuaded business PACs that the Democrats would be the majority party for the foreseeable future and that PAC contributions would ensure continued access to congressional leaders (Jackson 1988, 82–87). Research on the link between PAC contributions and legislative outcomes or legislative voting has yielded decidedly mixed results (for a summary, see Baumgartner and Leech 1998, 136), a fact that supports the notion that politicians may have more control over PACs than PACs have over politicians. Similar arguments have been made about soft money contributions to the parties.

During the 1990s, many previously bipartisan PACs became more willing to side with one party. Part of the switch from Democratic support to Republican support by PACs in general may have simply been a desire to support the majority party, and part of this switch may have reflected some degree of ideological sorting—Republican-leaning groups may have given a slightly larger percentage of their money to Democrats because they were the majority party during the 1970s and 1980s, but when Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, these groups tilted more heavily toward the Republicans than they had previously tilted toward the Democrats. Another reason for this switch, however, may have been politicians' increased demand for money. The average amount of money raised by successful House candidates doubled from $407,000 in 1990 to $840,000 in 2000. Candidates' demands for PAC contributions increased partly because elections became more expensive but also partly because those who aspired to advance within the party saw fund-raising (and subsequent redistribution of that money to the party committees or to other members' campaign treasuries) as a means of doing so. In addition, the Republican Party, following Coelho's strategy, applied more pressure to groups to donate heavily to Republicans. Many of the larger groups that became more partisan and more political during the 1990s, such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, may well have done so because they were seeking to play by the majority party's rules.


Excerpted from Interest Groups and Campaign Finance Reform in the United States and Canada by Robert G. Boatright Copyright © 2011 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Author's Note....................xi
List of Acronyms....................xiii
Introduction: Interest Groups and Campaign Finance Reform—A Natural Experiment....................1
1 | Interest Group Studies in Canada and the United States....................25
2 | Interest Group Politics of the 1990s and the Campaign Finance Reform Movement....................53
3 | Campaign Finance Reform....................71
4 | Measuring the Effects of Reform....................85
5 | The American Response....................102
6 | The Canadian Response....................149
7 | Lessons....................174
8 | Reform Goals and Values....................193
Appendix: A Primer on Brokerage Parties....................213
List of Interviews....................225

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