Unequal Representation: Membership Input and Interest Group Decision-Making

Interest groups play a key mediating and representational role in politics. In the theory of pluralist politics, organized groups represent the interests of varied segments of society in the national policy process. These groups organize to represent the views of their members in the halls of Congress, administrative agencies, and federal courthouses, giving voice to their members\' interests in all policy making arenas. The competition from the varied organized groups provides valuable information for policy makers and, again in theory, helps ensure that government remains responsive to those affected by public policy.
At one point in time, pluralist theory was thought to hold that nearly all interests were represented nearly equally, or at least in reasonably balanced proportions, in the political process. Critics of pluralism, such as Schattschneider (1983) and Walker (1966), began to call attention to distinct inequalities in the interest group system of representation, finding that elite and industrial interests typically had better organizational representation in politics. In Schattschneider\'s famous phrase, the "chorus" of interest groups sung "with a strong upper-class accent" (1983: 34-35). At the time Schattschneider wrote, only a small segment of interests in society were represented by organized groups, and these groups primarily were organized to represent businesses or professionals.
Mancur Olson (1971) challenged conventional pluralist theory further with his elucidation of the logic of collective action. Olson\'s work helped explain the mobilization of bias observed by Schattschneider by illuminating the free rider effect and other obstacles to organizing in order to secure public goods, challenges which seemed most insurmountable for citizen groups organized to secure diffuse benefits or prevent diffuse costs. Yet at the same time that collective action theory was revealing to scholars the flaws in standard pluralist accounts of interest group formation, the world of interest groups began seemingly to defy Olson\'s logic. The civil rights and women\'s movement, along with a host of environmental and consumer groups, emerged in spite of the theoretical limitations of collective organization. Over time these new citizen groups emerged as an institutionalized presence in Washington politics. Policy arenas once characterized as "iron triangles" or tightly linked "subgovernments" expanded rapidly in the face of the new groups and became more diverse than in the past (Gais, Peterson, & Walker 1984).
The agenda of interest group scholars has since been dominated in large measure by efforts to explain the paradox of growing numbers of citizen-oriented interest groups in the face of otherwise compelling collective action problems. How could these groups even come about in the face of free rider effects? The short answer, if one is to pull together nearly thirty years of research and dangerously oversimplify, appears to be that interest group leaders make the difference. Group leaders act as entrepreneurs, securing support from government and foundations and offering members a range of purposive and solidary benefits in exchange for signing up (Salisbury 1969; Walker 1983, 1991; Wilson 1973; Moe 1980; Hardin 1982).
Compared with the attention give to the formation and maintenance of interest groups, what these groups actually do once they are organized remains little studied. Rich case studies of interest group politics exist (Mansbridge 1986; McFarland 1984; Rothenberg 1991), yet the internal decision making of these groups remains an area for further systematic research. When we consider the representational role interest groups play in pluralist, democratic politics, the relative paucity of research on the role of members in the decisions of these groups is striking. As others have noted, a gap exists in what we know about the representational link in interest group decision making (Rothenberg 1991:132; Cigler 1994:33; Tierney 1994:38; Browne 1996:16). As Jeffrey Berry (1994:22) observed, "the internal operations of interest groups have not been adequately studied. . .Most conspicuously, little work has been done on the governance of interest groups, [an area] critical to our understanding of how rank-and-file preferences are incorporated into organizational decision-making."
The gap in empirical research on how (and how well) interest groups take members\' views into account in selecting policy issues and crafting strategies is all the more striking given the long-standing scholarly interest in variations in political representation. This interest has led to the recognition of distinct meanings of political representation, two of the more prominent involving analogies