The positive aspect of the influence or role of special interest groups in democratic political systems is the opportunity such groups or organizations provide in influencing governmental policies when those groups' perspectives might otherwise not be heard. In a country as geographically expansive and heavily populated as the United States, and as diverse in terms of ethnicities, political orientations, professions, cultures, and so on, the ability of any one individual to make a difference at...
The positive aspect of the influence or role of special interest groups in democratic political systems is the opportunity such groups or organizations provide in influencing governmental policies when those groups' perspectives might otherwise not be heard. In a country as geographically expansive and heavily populated as the United States, and as diverse in terms of ethnicities, political orientations, professions, cultures, and so on, the ability of any one individual to make a difference at the national or even state or local level would be very limited. The seat of the federal government, of course, is in Washington, D.C., on the eastern coast of the United States. Individuals or groups in, say, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, or even locations much closer to the nation's capital would have a very difficult time being heard in the halls of Congress or in the Executive Branch if they did not unite and form what are pejoratively called "special interest groups." In fact, so central is the right of the public to "lobby" the institutions of government that it is set forth in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." [Emphasis added]
To the extent that special interest groups exist to petition the government, then their existence and operation is entirely consistent with the intent of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Special interest groups provide organized groups of people a voice with their government, and that voice is constitutionally protected.
The negative aspect of special interest groups is the undue influence small categories of people can wield with the government. Powerful special interest groups may only represent the perspectives of a very small percentage of the population, but enjoy influence with the government out of all proportion to that percentage. Other groups may be larger, but still enjoy more influence than their numbers may warrant. While protection of the minority is an essential component of a liberal democracy, caution should be used in ensuring that the preferences of that minority are not allowed to dictate public policy at the expense of the majority. Equal protections under the law means just that: equality. It does not mean government by the few over the many.
The most negative aspect of special interest groups involves the extremes to which some such groups go in advancing their interests. Under occasional circumstances, the relationships between special interest groups and elected representatives can grow way too close, with the latter becoming beholden to the former because of the often-nefarious influence of political donations proffered by organized groups. The relationship of money to elective politics remains highly divisive in the United States, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings affirming the right of groups to contribute financially to political candidates, while perhaps valid on strict legal merits, has done nothing to help protect the interests of the less prosperous. It is within this context that special interest groups can have a very deleterious influence on democratic processes.
Congress and Your Homework
That's Arne Duncan, responding to the proposed Lamar Alexander remix of No Child Left Behind. It's an interesting construction, an inspiring line.
The first picture that popped into my head was an old white guy in a suit, knocking on some family's front door. When a parent answers, he says, "Hello. I'm Senator Bumswoggle, and I'm here to help Chris study for the big algebra test tomorrow."
Okay, that's probably not what Duncan means. But it does raise the question-- what exactly can Congress do to help all children succeed? If we went into classrooms and asked the students, "What do you need from your Congressperson to help you succeed this week?" what would they say?
Would they say that they really, really need to take a bunch of standardized tests? "I think I'm getting better at reading," will say some bright-eyed eight-year-old, "but until I take a standardized test from Congress, I just don't know." Is that what would happen?
Would they say, "Please don't give any more resources to this school. Instead, give the money to some charter operator to set up a completely different school. Yes, I realize they might not let me go to that school, and I'll have to stay in this one scraping by with fewer resources, but I'll sleep better knowing that entrepreneurs have had the opportunity to unleash innovation while making good ROI."
It is sweet that Duncan and Congress want to help. The desire to help, particularly to help those who are most vulnerable, is a basic human impulse, and a credit to every person who feels it. But the desire to help does not automatically confer the ability to help.
Suppose one of my children is injured and rushed to an operating room. I would want to help. I would want to wave a magic wand and fix it, right now. But if I grab a scalpel and dash into the operating theater declaring, "I really want to help. What can I do?" they would have to throw me out, because as someone with zero surgery-related skills, the most useful thing I can do is get out of the way. Even if I am obscenely rich and incredibly powerful, I still don't have the skills.
So if Congress's message to children is going to be, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you" the question remains-- what can Congress actually do to help children succeed?
Not teach the children-- neither Congress nor the Department of Education contains barely any people with skills and expertise in actually teaching children. Congress doesn't know how to build schools or run a sceince fair or assess an essay. Nor would I want to watch a Congressman take a shift or two of lunch duty (okay, I might want to watch a little). With few exceptions, Congresspersons do not know how to do any of the things directly related to helping a child achieve success in school. So they won't help the children succeed that way.
In fact, Congress doesn't even know the individual children that it's talking about. This means that it has no idea what individual strengths and weaknesses the children have. It also means that neither Congress nor Secretary Duncan knows what each individual child means by "succeed." So the actual working with children is best left up to the people who are right there with them-- teachers and parents.That work includes defining and measuring success; Congress lacks the skills and expertise to do either of those tasks.
Congress does have the expertise to deal with the money and politics portion of the picture. Congress can do its part to make sure that every school has the resources that it needs, and Congress has a responsibility to do that honestly, without damaging fictions such as, "We can fund ten different excellent schools for the same money that's now spent on just one." Congress has a responsibility to do its homework, so that it's not making choices based on the lies in charter school PR materials.
Congress has the expertise and skills to make sure that states do not create funding formulas that treat some children like second-class citizens. Congress has the expertise and skills to require that states and school districts remain transparent.
Neither Congress nor the Department of Education has the expertise and skill to determine when a school is failing or what should be done with that failing school. They have been told that expertise in business, politics and money are sufficient to identify and cure failing schools; this is simply not true, any more than my expertise in teaching English means I belong in an operating room or a board room.
Congress's responsibility to help children succeed is not a bad measure. But if we're going to be honest and truthful about the matter, Congress's ability to help children succeed is nearly non-existent. Great responsibility can come with great power, but in this case, Congress's most important power is to step back and let the people with expertise, training and skills do their jobs.