Monday, March 23, 2009

Interest group and party influence agents in the legislative process

Interest Group and Party Influence Agents in the Legislative Process

Something that you hear continually when listing to the political rhetoric spewed by newspapers is that interest groups and parties have too much power and influence. Additionally, this view is bought into by many in the community. However, how much influence do these two groups have, and is their influence much more prominent in California than in other states? I speak with my in-laws from Ohio and Utah and they do not have the same cynical view of interest groups and parties that people in California seem to spout.

Wiggins, Hamm and Bell (1998), in their article Interest-Group and Party Influence Agents in the Legislative Process: A comparative State Analysis, seek to examine the role of interest groups and the strength that they have in the legislative policy-making process. They examine California, Iowa and Texas as their sample states. They found that their study suggests that the governor and legislative majority party leader can effectively offset the lobbying efforts of interest groups. However, they do not seem to find a pattern across states.

I found it very interesting that the authors of this study traced their desire to study the topic back to Madison. They frame the question as one of finding out if public officials – who are elected by and responsible to broad groupings of constituents – can control the mischiefs of factions. I have never thought of the relationship between elected officials and interest groups as one of control of factions. I rather thought that this relationship was symbiotic, whereby one did a favor for the other in return for a favor later. So this is a new and novel approach to the relationship in my perspective.

However, when looking at their methodology I found a few problems. First of all they are comparing apples and oranges. There is no adjustment for professional versus citizen legislatures. Instead, they seem to pick three states at random and use them. How does the trifecta of Iowa, Texas and California represent the sum total of the states? There is no analysis of how representative this sample is. Additionally, they do not take the same percentage of bills, or number of bills, or even bill topics and years from each state. They make comparisons based on a random sample where that may not be representative of the various roles that the actors they are wanting to study play. If the random sample is of small or technical bills, then it is possible that their sample is skewed. If the random sample picks only big bills, then it is possible that the roles of the actors is overstated. Therefore, there seems to be a problem with the methodology from the beginning.

However, they still come to the conclusion, after much statistical analysis and study, that their general notion is supported. Their general notion is that party-oriented influence agents – such as the Governor or majority party leaders – can effectively provide the checks and balances needed on interest groups. However, they do make the point that only strong leaders within the system can provide checks and balances on the interest groups. That is the reason that the minority party leaders cannot effectively place checks and balances on the interest groups – according to their analysis.

Even after a careful read of their information and analysis, I do not see that their study presents how the checks and balances and the interactions between the governor/majority party leader and interest groups work. There has been nothing in the analysis that accounts for the sheer desire to thwart the interest groups, or cooperate with them. I believe that there is an element of will in this whole situation that is not accounted for within the analysis. For instance, in California, could the majority party leadership or the Governor really compete with the CTA? According to the analysis, they should be able to – however in practice the CTA has won its battle with the governor. If this analysis is followed, then the Governor should’ve been able to place certain checks and balances on the CTA – which he has been unable to do. But for what they studied, and how long ago this study was written, it is a good overall explanation of the things they studied.

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