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Unequal Representation: Membership Input and Interest Group Decision-Making

Interest groups play a key mediating and representational role in politics. In the theory of pluralist politics, organized groups represent the interests of varied segments of society in the national policy process. These groups organize to represent the views of their members in the halls of Congress, administrative agencies, and federal courthouses, giving voice to their members’ interests in all policy making arenas. The competition from the varied organized groups provides valuable information for policy makers and, again in theory, helps ensure that government remains responsive to those affected by public policy.

At one point in time, pluralist theory was thought to hold that nearly all interests were represented nearly equally, or at least in reasonably balanced proportions, in the political process. Critics of pluralism, such as Schattschneider (1983) and Walker (1966), began to call attention to distinct inequalities in the interest group system of representation, finding that elite and industrial interests typically had better organizational representation in politics. In Schattschneider’s famous phrase, the “chorus” of interest groups sung “with a strong upper-class accent” (1983: 34-35).

At the time Schattschneider wrote, only a small segment of interests in society were represented by organized groups, and these groups primarily were organized to represent businesses or professionals. Mancur Olson (1971) challenged conventional pluralist theory further with his elucidation of the logic of collective action. Olson’s work helped explain the mobilization of bias observed by Schattschneider by illuminating the free rider effect and other obstacles to organizing in order to secure public goods, challenges which seemed most insurmountable for citizen groups organized to secure diffuse benefits or prevent diffuse costs.

Yet at the same time that collective action theory was revealing to scholars the flaws in standard pluralist accounts of interest group formation, the world of interest groups began seemingly to defy Olson’s logic. The civil rights and women’s movement, along with a host of environmental and consumer groups, emerged in spite of the theoretical limitations of collective organization. Over time these new citizen groups emerged as an institutionalized presence in Washington politics.

Policy arenas once characterized as “iron triangles” or tightly linked “subgovernments” expanded rapidly in the face of the new groups and became more diverse than in the past (Gais, Peterson, & Walker 1984). The agenda of interest group scholars has since been dominated in large measure by efforts to explain the paradox of growing numbers of citizen-oriented interest groups in the face of otherwise compelling collective action problems. How could these groups even come about in the face of free rider effects?

The short answer, if one is to pull together nearly thirty years of research and dangerously oversimplify, appears to be that interest group leaders make the difference. Group leaders act as entrepreneurs, securing support from government and foundations and offering members a range of purposive and solidary benefits in exchange for signing up (Salisbury 1969; Walker 1983, 1991; Wilson 1973; Moe 1980; Hardin 1982). Compared with the attention give to the formation and maintenance of interest groups, what these groups actually do once they are organized remains little studied.

Rich case studies of interest group politics exist (Mansbridge 1986; McFarland 1984; Rothenberg 1991), yet the internal decision making of these groups remains an area for further systematic research. When we consider the representational role interest groups play in pluralist, democratic politics, the relative paucity of research on the role of members in the decisions of these groups is striking. As others have noted, a gap exists in what we know about the representational link in interest group decision making (Rothenberg 1991:132; Cigler 1994:33; Tierney 1994:38; Browne 1996:16).

As Jeffrey Berry (1994:22) observed, “the internal operations of interest groups have not been adequately studied. . . Most conspicuously, little work has been done on the governance of interest groups, [an area] critical to our understanding of how rank-and-file preferences are incorporated into organizational decision-making. ” The gap in empirical research on how (and how well) interest groups take members’ views into account in selecting policy issues and crafting strategies is all the more striking given the long-standing scholarly interest in variations in political representation.

This interest has led to the recognition of distinct meanings of political representation, two of the more prominent involving analogies to delegates and trustees (cf. Pitkin 1967). Moreover, any regular observer of interest group politics knows of specific instances of internal tensions between members’ and their interest group leaders. Just as elected public officials are sometimes criticized as being “out-of-touch” with their constituents, so too are the elite leaders of interest groups occasionally viewed by scholars as only remotely connected with their individual group members (Skocpol 1996; McCann 1986).

Consider, for example, the following two examples of members’ roles in interest group decision-making: Local chapters of the Sierra Club sometimes want to seek court orders protecting cherished natural resources in their communities. According to internal Club procedures, they must give the national office ultimate direction over any lawsuits. Rifts have arisen between local members and the national office when the national legal staff recommends making concessions in order to settle litigation over local resources, rather than getting a definitive, enforceable ruling by a judge.

In commenting on such a situation, an activist in the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter reportedly called “the national leaders ‘dictatorial’ in their treatment of locals’ complaints: ‘They suppress debate and hold secret meetings because they’re more interested in being “players” than in protecting the environment. ‘” (Olin 1995:16). In 1992, the Robert Mondavi Winery resigned from the Wine Institute, at that time the leading lobbying organization of California wine growers.

The resignation of the Mondavi winery followed the resignation of about fifty other wineries which reportedly “felt that the institute’s policies and practices were too closely dictated by its largest member, the E & J Gallo Winery of Modesto, Calif. , and not responsive to their needs or wishes” (Fisher 1992). Even though Robert Mondavi had served as the institute’s chair as recently as 1988, the institute failed to act on his extensive efforts to get the institute to establish a marketing program to promote wine as part of a healthy lifestyle, a strategy apparently opposed by Gallo out of concern for product liability exposure.

The Mondavi winery, which had been paying over $300,000 a year in institute dues, ended up developing its own government-relations office, joining another trade association, and eventually launching a new industry organization devoted to wine marketing, the Wine Market Council, that attracted other members from the Wine Institute (Carlsen 1995). These examples show that tensions between members’ interests and leader’s plans do arise, and that members in different groups may have different roles in their groups’ internal decisionmaking.

While it may not always be possible for interest group leaders to reconcile competing member interests (as apparently was the case with the Wine Institute), leaders do need to learn what their members’ views are in order to attempt to represent them. As V. O. Key (1964:143) put it, “[a]ntecedent to the expression of group views is a process of creation of those views. ” Consultation with members constitutes a necessary precondition to effective representation of group members by interest group leaders.

This paper contributes to our understanding of interest group representation by focusing on the extent to which members have input into decisions about their groups’ positions on public policy issues. I specifically seek to explain different patterns of membership input into interest group decisions. The leaders of some groups regularly consult with their members in formulating positions and adopting strategies, while others consult less regularly (if at all) (Berry 1984:93; Key 1964:145).

I begin by articulating four theories which might explain why the leaders of some interest groups consult their members more regularly than others. Using data from Jack Walker’s survey of Washington representatives, I then test hypotheses drawn from these theories to explain why some groups’ leaders consult with their members more frequently than others. Theories of Membership Input in Interest Group Decisions Michels (1962) argued that all organizations possess oligarchical tendencies, yet here I am interested in what can explain differences between groups in the extent to which group leaders act in consultation with group members.

Variation in membership input within interest groups may be explained by characteristics of the interest group organizations, the reliance of the group on members for financial support, the primary activities performed by the group, or the type of members of which the group is comprised. Organizational Characteristics The first explanatory theory draws attention to specific organizational features of an interest group which might relate to how frequently group leaders consult their membership.

Michels (1962) referred to such features as the “mechanical and technical” causes of organizational oligarchy. Some features of an organization might facilitate consultation with members, including its age, staff and membership size, and the existence of state or local chapters. Age Elite theorists such as Michels (1962) and Mosca (1939) sometimes describe oligarchy in evolutionary terms, reflecting a natural tendency that occurs over time even in those organizations founded originally on the most democratic of ideals.

The expectation is that older firms become less responsive to their members’ concerns. The stereotypical image of an upstart business firm (say, Apple Computer) that begins with vitality and energy, but over time becomes bureaucratic and stodgy, conveys the intuition behind this expectation. The leaders of older interest group organizations could therefore be predicted to consult with members less frequently in their decision making. Staff and Membership Size

The larger a group’s overall membership, the smaller may be each members’ overall impact on group decisions. The size of an organization was among Michels’ (1962:71) “technical” causes of organizational oligarchy (Cassinelli 1953), a tendency which some empirical research confirms (Indik 1965). The larger an organization becomes, the more difficult it may become for leaders to coordinate communication with members so as to learn the views of the membership as a whole.

Leaders of groups with larger membership sizes can therefore be expected to consult less with their members. Since it takes time and resources for group leaders to consult with members in making decisions, those groups with larger staffs will be, ceteris paribus, better equipped to consult with their membership. Staff size can also signal the overall level of a group’s financial resources, which might also be expected to make consultation with members occur more frequently.

The leaders of groups with larger staffs can therefore be predicted to consult with their members more frequently than in groups with smaller staffs. Chapters Some interest groups have chapters and subchapters that allow interest group members to get involved at their local level. Groups with chapter structures might be thought to facilitate member input better than groups without state or local chapters, providing members with a smaller unit in which to discuss their views and convey them to the leadership.

The leaders of groups with state or local chapters may be expected to consult with their members more frequently than groups without chapters. On the other hand, it is possible that the existence of chapters simply adds another level of bureaucracy within an organization, serving to insulate national leaders rather than make them more responsive. Financial Impact of Members When members provide the resources for an organization, leaders may be more inclined to consult with them.

The role of dues in affecting the frequency of membership input resonates with Salisbury’s (1969) theory of interest group formation, which holds that leaders get members to join groups by offering something in exchange. Several features of membership dues could be expected to affect the frequency with which group leaders consult their members. First, if dues are assessed on a sliding scale (i. e. , some members pay more than others), it might be expected that the members paying more dues will demand more attention from the group leadership.

The leaders of groups with sliding dues scales can be expected to consult with their members more frequently than groups in which all members pay the same dues. Second, if dues make up a large portion of the overall group budget, then leaders have a greater incentive to consult members to make sure the group’s positions fit with members’ preferences. Thus, leaders of groups in which membership dues make up a larger portion of group revenues can be predicted to consult with their members more frequently.

Finally, when a group faces competition from other groups for the same members, interest group leaders may go to greater lengths to please the members of their organization to minimize the number of defections to other groups. The leaders of such groups facing competition could be expected to consult more frequently than leaders of groups that do not face competition. Interest Group Activities Interest groups engage in a number of different kinds of activities to achieve their goals, including lobbying government, litigating, using the media, electioneering, protesting, and seeking consensus among experts.

Although all these strategies can serve the interests of a group’s members, some place interest group leaders in a more visible representational role. When lobbying government agencies or members of Congress, interest group leaders act publicly on the behalf of the members of their organization. Similarly, in filing lawsuits, organizations are thought in principle to appear on behalf of their members (Hunt v. Washington State Apple Advertising Commission 1977).

When interest group leaders appear before government institutions or officials, they are expected to speak for their members and may therefore be more likely to consult their members when they engage in such activities. Leaders of organizations which engage in activities explicitly involving representation before government bodies, such as lobbying, can be expected to consult with their members more frequently. Type of Membership If collective action problems exist in organizing groups, they should also presumably exist in deciding what groups do.

Research following Olson (1971) has tacitly assumed that once interest organizations are formed, the collective action problem has been surmounted. The group then simply proceeds to work toward securing a public good. But perhaps things are not so easy. First, disagreements may exist between members over the precise nature of the public good, especially in specific contexts. Second, disagreements may exist over what position or strategy will best lead to the desired public good.

Finally, there is no reason to think that leaders will always agree with members on goals or strategies. Indeed, principal-agent theory suggests that members may well have to fear some shirking on the part of interest group leaders. We may think of involvement in interest group decisions as an extension of the central problem of collective action. Just as it may demand group resources for interest group leaders to consult with group members, such consultation demands the time and resources of members themselves.

While the costs of collective action may be small when that action is limited simply as writing a check for $20, the costs become much higher when that action involves monitoring group activities, attending meetings, and talking strategy. The implication is that not only do the costs of (and resources for) consultation matter for interest group leaders, they also matter for interest group members. The type of members in a group can range from an ordinary citizen earning only a modest wage to a multinational, Fortune 500 corporation.

The members in trade associations, such as the Chemical Manufacturers Association, are organizations, namely chemical companies. The members of the American Association of Retired Persons, in contrast, are obviously older individual citizens. If resources matter, it might be expected that membership consultation would occur more frequently in groups comprised of organizational members (which can and do hire staff to monitor and provide input into group decisions) than in groups comprised of individual members.

Some suggestive research already supports this hypothesis. Berry (1977), for example, reported that the staff members of public interest lobbies consulted with group members only infrequently in reaching decisions. My own interviews with representatives of trade associations active in environmental policy revealed that, in contrast, the staffs of industry groups frequently consult with and take direction from the group’s corporate members (Coglianese 1994).

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