by Donna Sharer, Philadelphia, PA

The web quest is designed to have you become an "expert" on one public interest group.


Interest group: an organization of people with shared policy goals. Unlike political parties, these groups do not seek to control or operate the government but to influence it usually in one area of public policy.

Think tanks: Privately funded research organizations that examine issues of public policy and often produce policy proposals.


      Public Interest Groups

Public Interest Groups have been in the U.S. since the 1780s.  In 1787, in Federalist #10, James Madison warned us of the dangers of "factions." Madison said, "by a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Madison concluded that the way to control the problems of faction was to create a large republic where no one faction could gain undue influence.

The growth in Public Interest Groups began between 1890 - 1920.  Groups such as the NAACP, the Urban League, the Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the American Friends Service Committee and the American Jewish Committee began at the beginning of the 20th century to provide services but also influence public policy.

 Most Public Interest Groups began after 1960.  About 70% of Public Interest Groups established offices in Washington, DC after 1960.  Half of the groups opened offices after 1970.  All group seek to influence public policy.  Companies also have Washington, DC offices to influence policy.  A court case, U.S. v. Harriss (1954) determined that the Constitution protects the lobbying of Congress but the government may require information from groups that try to influence legislation.

The problem today is that many people believe that interest groups have acquired excessive influence compared to the influence of the public at large. However, the facts of U.S.  political life tends to support a different view of interest groups. It is very common political behavior for Americans to come together in voluntary associations in an effort to deal with mutual problems or address common concerns. It is also very common for such groups to seek to have their views heard by legislatures by hiring lobbyists to speak for them. Many groups form political action committees [PACs] to support the election of candidates they believe have views compatible with their views. The very special interests we fear and complain about may actually be "us."

Read more about Interest Groups in the U.S.