05 Sep 2017

“Special Interest” Groups – Red Herring Anyone?

3 Comments

The PolicySmith laments beginning a blog post with a question, but this one is not simply a device – we’d like you to troll through your recent memory…how often have you seen or heard a Washington insider lament the influence of “special interest” groups?  That’s a thinly-veiled insult aimed at the insider’s opponents – it’s a favorite device for defining opposition as greedy, narrow, dishonest and/or several other unsavory traits.

It also implies that those not in this special interest group are logical, aligned with the “greater good,” and are experienced in whatever the insider is advocating.  A prime example can be found in arguments opposing oil and gas development – those favoring development, pipelines, abundant conventional resources are typically demeaned as “greedy special interests” along with “polluters, corporate interests and pressure groups.”

Not so long ago, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, Ohio liberal Democrat, specialized in demonizing those who dissented from his views by segregating them from what he called “thinking Americans.”  By “thinking Americans” our view is that Sen. Metzenbaum referred to those who agreed with him and had not been declared legally insane.  The Ohio senator was a favorite of the liberal elite, an unctuous dandy who made millions in ownership of Cleveland parking lots.  He gained ignoble fame when he labelled his primary opponent, astronaut John Glenn, as “never having worked for a living.”  Glenn then invited Mr. Metzenbaum to visit veteran’s hospitals and tell the mangled veterans they’d never had a job.

His career was marked by vehement opposition to Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, the G.D. Searle and Company product aspartame and mergers of large corporations.  He often referred to “hidden special interests” and could be “credited” with introducing and popularizing the denigrating term.

So, who are these “special interests?”  Who are these nefarious influencers, these single-minded greedy profiteers seeking to prey on society’s innocents, do-gooders and charitable souls?  Here is a sample of registered “special interests” – associations, alliances, coalitions, institutes, unions, federations, councils and congresses — with a presence in Washington, DC:

United Mine Workers, Urban Financial Services Coalition, Screen Manufacturers Association, Center for Audit Quality, Million Dollar Roundtable, American Ambulance Association, Open Mashup Alliance, Commercial Real Estate Women, Association for Convention Operations Management, Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union…and so on…there are thousands…even a Society of Association Executives…really.

Virtually every labor union, religious group, business segment has a national organization, hardly the bogeymen “hidden special interests” implies.  Business segments unite in local, statewide and national chambers of commerce, educational entities and their individual disciplines unite for common pursuits, professional disciplines within any industry unite for representation.

Elucidating the reality of “special interests” is a corollary to the PolicySmith’s attempt to demystify the ace bogeyman in the minds of those who fear government corruption – the lobbyist. The reality is that lobbyists and “special interests” are exercising their First Amendment rights to petition government on behalf of the citizens they represent.

And while it’s tempting to paint the side with which you disagree as nothing but “greedy special interests,” that’s intellectually dishonest and misses the point entirely. As we’ve noted before, lawmakers are involved in setting rules and regulations for every single industry and subset of society in the country. It would be impossible for anyone to have complete subject matter mastery over that many issues. “Special interests” function to explain unintended consequences, to provide needed context, and to equip lawmakers with the knowledge they need to make the decision possible.

Do they always make the best decision? Depending on where you fall on any given issue, that answer is certainly no. But it’s important to understand that the information pipeline comes not just from one side, but from many. For further illumination, let’s take a look at the multitude of special interests working on the issue nearest and dearest to the PolicySmith’s heart: oil and gas.

In oil and gas there is the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Society of Independent Professional Earth Scientists, Society of Petroleum Engineers, National Association of Division Order Analysts, American Association of Professional Landmen…and many more on state and local levels.

Nationally there is the Independent Petroleum Association of America, American Petroleum Institute, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, National Ocean Industries Association, American Gas Association and so on…

Then there are the green groups – National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Earthjustice, Izaak Walton League, National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, Worldwatch Institute, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters, 350.org, US Climate Action Network, Earthworks, Endangered Species Coalition, Wilderness Society, World Wildlife Fund, and so forth, ad nauseum.

Their funding follows a different model.  They solicit large numbers of members with a low to non-existent dues or purchase of a calendar or logoed trinket.  Their direct mail outreach is a blizzard of flyers, TV and radio pleas in the wee hours are inexpensive and their messages are often in the tear-jerker genre.  But realistically, how many calendars can grandma buy? …and free stamps and nickels in direct mail milk only so many softies.

The real money for these NGOs is in lawsuits, many process driven and tipped off to them by their pals in government agencies who are supporters and advocates of the NGOs.  Now THAT is a well-hidden special interest – suing government to fund misdirection to the legions of $5 and $10 donors.  Donors that are sold the notion that the green group is saving the Earth, the bird, the fish, the forest, the ocean the river or whatever.

So, Sen. Metzenbaum WAS on to something when portraying “hidden special interests.”  They’ve evolved, but in checking the legions of lobbying, trade, professional, environmental, medical, trade union and the myriad other “special interests,” one clear truth emerges – every interest is a special interest, and if they are all special interests, clearly – none of them are.

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3 Responses to “Special Interest” Groups – Red Herring Anyone?
  1. I’m curious at what point does the count of special interest groups makes them not so special anymore? In the special interest groups hierarchy what commands a superlative status?

  2. Wonderful write-up, I am normal visitor on the site, maintain up the nice operate, and It’s going as a regular visitor for a long time.

  3. Totally stunning photos!


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