Implications: Organization ecology and lobbying

Beyond influencing the internal structure of interest organizations and their opportunities to survive and thrive, the organization ecology approach suggests that key traits of interest communities influences the selection of both lobbying issues and the lobbying tactics and strategies that interest organizations employ. This expectation is central to our perspective on the politics of interest representation as an influence production process (Lowery and Gray 2004). That is, the population traits of density and diversity, as well as micro-level processes of niche competition, seem likely to condition lobbying over public policy.5 This includes both the selection of policies on which to lobby and how lobbying is conducted. Both ultimately depend on having a sufficient resource endowment, with greater endowments supporting more and higher quality lobby strategies and, as a result, better access to the policy-making process. Niche theory suggests, of course, that the density of the interest system as a whole heavily influences the size of resource endowments. Further, niche theory and resource dependence theory suggest that interest organizations must keep an especially wary eye on the actions of similar interest organizations, something that should influence what issues they choose to lobby on and how they then do so (Lowery 2007).

It should not be surprising, then, that the population ecology research program on interest representation has found some evidence that the structure of interest populations influences what issues organizations lobby on and how they do so. The number of issues that state chambers of commerce lobby on, for example, varies by the density of the business interest community such that chambers in more crowded systems are competitively excluded from a number of more specialized issues (Lowery et al. 2012). Further, the density of state interest systems is positively associated with both recourse to the use of political action committees as an additional means to secure access to elected officials (Gray and Lowery 1997a; Lowery et al. 2009) and joining lobbying coalitions (Gray and Lowery 1998). Neither is surprising in that it seems that crowding in interest systems makes legislative gridlock more likely (Gray and Lowery 1995a). But while both plausible and consistent with theory, this evidence is extensive in neither the types of lobbying considered nor the range of political systems that are addressed. Indeed, this is an area of organization ecology theory that we have only begun to explore.

More than a few conundrums remain in pursuing such research. With respect to opportunities for empirical research, analyses of the link between population structures and lobbying strategies and tactics from an explicitly organization ecology perspective is still quite limited and largely restricted to work on the American states. And turning to opportunities for theoretical development, the extant literature assumes something of a mechanical relationship between population traits and lobbying strategies and tactics. That is, the organizational ecology approach suggests that the structure of interest communities is a necessary and sufficient condition to explain interest organization tactics and strategies. It is assumed, if implicitly, that the structure of an interest community largely, if not entirely, determines what strategies organized interests employ.

This assumption, however, is clearly problematic if we employ a broader, more inclusive definition of the organization ecology approach. Central to this expectation is the theory of resource dependence (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978), a theory that has significant parallels and overlaps with organization ecology. A resource dependence perspective suggests that critical resources are a necessary but not a sufficient condition to explain lobby strategies. Rather, two interest organizations that differ in terms of resource endowment may opt for similar strategies as they manage their critical resources differently. Thus, resource dependence theory adds the notion of leveraging to that of resource endowment to develop a richer account of the adoption of lobby strategies. In chapter 8, Caelesta Braun addresses this opportunity by critically discussing the underlying assumptions of organizational ecology and resource dependence theories with respect to lobby strategies, identifying both common ground and unique explanatory factors. The discussion identifies opportunities to further study lobbying from a theoretically more encompassing organization ecology perspective.

Going beyond strategies and tactics, a focus on lobbying brings organization ecology scholars directly into what is perhaps the most important - or at least most noisy - debate within the interest representation literature: how the density and diversity of interest systems and the strategies and tactics organizations employ in lobbying are translated into political influence (Burstein and Linton 2002; Lowery and Gray 2004). The media, of course, routinely recycles stories of undue influence of narrow, selfish special interest groups, highlighting their privileged position in politics. In academic discussions, this view is sometimes labeled the transactions perspective since it suggests that much of politics is about the purchasing of public policy. Special interests glide through the supermarket of public policy placing their preferred policies in market baskets and then proceed to the checkout counter to pay in the currency of campaign contributions or simply favors among overly convivial old boys (Schattschneider 1960). From this perspective, organized interests pose a direct threat to democratic governments. But this view operates alongside an older, more benign view of interest organizations labeled the pluralist and now the neopluralist perspective. In this view, organized interests play a vital role in democracy, providing both technical information about proposed policies and political information about their salience to selective publics (Truman 1951).

In a strict sense, the organization ecology approach to the study of interest representation is agnostic about this debate.6 Organization ecology tells us how and why so many interest organizations mobilize (or not) and survive (or not). Further, it tells us much, at least implicitly, about how these mobilization and maintenance constraints condition what organized interests do when they engage in political activity. But the theory per se tells us nothing about whether organized interests are successful or not in securing their preferred policies. Still, as seen in the great debate over the influence of organized interests, the density and diversity of interest communities is thought by many to play a role - for good or for ill - in public policy. Influence necessarily depends upon who is at the table, what they want, and how they lobby, variables that, as demonstrated earlier, are profoundly influenced by the density and diversity of lobbying communities. Thus, the core elements of organization ecology are of vital, if indirect, importance to the great debate over the influence of organized interests.

Given two such divergent understandings of how organized interests influence public policy, we might think that it would be easy to distinguish which is more valid. But the complexities of that process and the valid measurement of influence are such that two sets of scholars can all too often look at the same basic facts and draw quite different conclusions (Lowery 2013). For example, we know as a factual matter that business interests dominate, at least in terms of simple numbers, nearly all interest communities. To Kay Schlozman and John Tierney, in Organized Interests and American Democracy (1986), the hordes of business lobbyists can only indicate their untoward influence in the public policy process. But to John Heinz, Edward Laumann, Robert Nelson, and Robert Salisbury in The Hollow Core (1993), the very presence of such business organizations suggests instead that they are so profoundly disadvantaged by the policy process that they must seek redress via lobbying. Both of these perspectives are represented in this volume. In chapter 9, Kay Scholzman and her colleagues present the former perspective in an extension of their long-standing analysis of the Washington interest system. In chapter 10, Beth Leech assesses the role of the interest community in public policy following in the neopluralist tradition of The Hollow Core. Both chapters provide an excellent representation of the two sides of the great debate on the policy impact of interest organizations.

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