By Nate Plautz
Communications Consultant

June 10, 2024

What is a special interest group?

A “special interest group” is a vague label for a pretty straightforward term: A special interest group is an organization of people or entities that share a common interest or goal.  

Special interest groups coordinate their collective resources to influence government priorities, laws, and regulations. They often lobby elected officials and other government decision-makers to shape policies and advance their agendas.

Are special interest groups bad?

Not inherently. Even anti-corruption nonprofits like RepresentUs could be classified as special interest groups. However, in our broken political system, the groups with the deepest pockets usually influence government the most.

Special interest groups – like lobbying and political campaign contributions – are a natural byproduct of a representative democracy. These are avenues for everyday Americans to advance their interests. The problem is when special interest groups, lobbying, or campaign contributions create an imbalance whereby one group purchases outsized influence that drowns out the broader public interest.

How do special interest groups influence government?

If a special interest group has the funds, they can legally spend almost unlimited amounts to exert undue influence. One example is the powerful pharmaceutical and health products industry, known by many as “Big Pharma.” Open Secrets reported that Big Pharma employed 1,854 lobbyists and spent over $382 million lobbying the federal government for their interests in 2023. The industry has purchased powerful access that enables American pharmaceutical companies to safeguard profits at the expense of everyday Americans.

There are 12,112 federal lobbyists. That's more than 22 registered lobbyists for each member of Congress.

How do special interest groups influence elections?

Special interest group influence isn’t limited to lobbying. When the Supreme Court determined that corporate campaign contributions should be classified as “free speech,” the court’s Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates to special interest group political spending. The same Citizens United ruling also weakened financial disclosure laws, giving rise to secretly-funded dark money groups called “Super PACs.” And though super PACs are technically required to disclose their donors, many avoid the requirement by raising money via other groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors.

These special interest group super PACs aren’t just propping up candidates that already support their causes; their purchasing power is prompting candidates to demonstrate allegiance to these causes. This election cycle, a group of super PACs supported by the cryptocurrency industry announced plans to spend more than $80 million to support candidates who signal their support for the industry. And when that group of pro-cryptocurrency Super PACs indicated they would spend heavily in Maryland’s U.S. Senate primary, Politico recently reported that both leading candidates were quick to express their support for cryptocurrency.

Is there a special interest group for the rest of us?

A comprehensive Princeton and Northwestern study found that the opinions of 90% of Americans have essentially no impact on public policy. Researchers found that most of us have no influence on policy because money has drowned out the voices of everyday Americans. 

While most special interest groups are spending eye-watering sums to promote policies with near-zero public support, RepresentUs is fighting for the common sense anti-corruption policies that most Americans support… yet Congress always seems to ignore. 

We’re building momentum for meaningful and systemic change by bringing together Americans from across the country and the political spectrum. And we’re building our own “special interest group” to hold our elected representatives accountable to “We the people.” Will you join us?

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.