Interest Groups and Political Systems

Constitutional and Legal Framework


The term 'interest group' is not mentioned in the German Basic Law. Instead, article 9 refers to 'clubs', 'corporations', and 'associations' when referring to freedom of association.

Article 9, paragraph 1 contains the fundamental right of general freedom of association. It covers the right to establish associations, as well as the liberty of joining and leaving them, and also the right to issue statutes.

Paragraph 3 in article 19 of the Basic Law is significant in regard to the legal standing of groups. This article explains that fundamental rights apply also to "domestic legal entities ", which includes associations. Hence, they are entitled to the same fundamental rights such as the principle of equality and freedom of speech as individuals. Furthermore, associations can benefit from taxation privileges, if their non-profit character is acknowledged. This status is easily attainable for most groups in the social and cultural sector.

Core elements of the legal framework concerning interest groups are laid out in the Civil Law (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, BGB) rather than in the Basic Law. The Civil Law contains a section regarding associations in articles 21 through 79. The law ensures basic democratic structures of associations, but at the same time it is very flexible and allows many provisions to be replaced by statutes determined by the individual association. Although the law also regulates other forms of associations, e.g. sport clubs, most interest groups choose this legal entity. Trade unions are an exception, as for historic reasons they never chose this legal form. Around the turn of the century they refused to submit themselves to police rights that were regulated under the Civil Law. Although this obstacle became obsolete long ago, unions still maintain their own legal status.

Also chambers of commerce hold a special legal status, as they are entities of public law. Membership in these organizations is mandatory for those working in specific, mostly self-employed types of jobs. People choosing a career in one of these fields are required to join e.g.chambers of trade, crafts, lawyers, or physicians. Despite their lack of free membership these organizations certainly qualify as interest groups, as they represent their members' interest against other groups and in the political arena.

In Germany, according to Article 24 of the Common Rules of Procedures for the Federal Ministries, associations and their representatives, are allowed to participate in preparations of legislation. Although interest groups are substantially involved in the legislative process, there are no figures concerning the exact numbers of interest groups that are involved in the governmental process on the federal level.

United States

Interest groups are accepted as a significant factor in the American governmental system. Still, their basic legal foundation, freedom of association, is not explicitly granted by the US Constitution. This right is granted through jurisdiction by the supreme court (National Labor Relations Board vs. Jones & Laughlin 301 US 1 ff), and it includes an explicit acknowledgment of interest groups' right to protect social and economic interests of their membership (Fraenkel, 82). Constitutional protection does include acts of influencing public opinion (freedom of speech), and the legislative and executive branches of government (right to petition).

Resulting from the at times far-reaching influence of interest groups, there have been several attempts by the government to regulate and institutionalize their activity. One of the first measures regulating interest groups is a statute passed by the House of Representatives in 1857, which enabled news reporters to be excluded from sessions, if they were seeking to influence ongoing debates (Beyme, 178). In 1890, the first state lobbying law was passed in Massachusetts, and by 1946 most states had passed acts and regulations to limit lobbying activity. One of the milestones was the 'federal regulation of lobbying act' of 1946. This act, however, was not conceived to repress interest groups. Rather, it was assumed that cooperation with these groups was desirable and inevitable. According to this law, interest groups involved in congressional work have to register, name their employer, publicize their financial funding, and present a report every three months. This law has shown to provide some loops for groups, though, as it proved to be easy to avoid registration (Beyme, 179).

The 'Campaign Finance Acts' of the 1970s, along with other factors such as the decentralization of institutions, laid the basis for increased founding of political action committees -- organizations which help funnel financial contributions from interest groups (Hrebenar, 303).

Political Systems -- Constitutions -- Democracy -- Group Theory