A Quiet Revolution in State Lobbying: Government Growth and Interest Populations

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920975490
What explains contemporary numbers of interest groups
in America? Social scientists offer different accounts of
interest in government. Whereas political scientists tend to
attribute lobbying efforts to lawmaking activities or policy
change, several economists propose that interest groups
lobby in response to government spending. Moreover,
there are disagreements over whether lobbying by interest
groups responds to or precipitates lawmaking activities or
government spending. I use historical data from the
American states to gain insight into these conflicting nar-
ratives. The data are produced from archival and second-
ary sources and show that comparatively few groups
lobbied legislators prior to the 1960s or 1970s. During
those decades, as states developed economically and
Congress delegated the implementation of federal pro-
grams and standards to the states, legislatures increased
lawmaking productivity and spending. I find that changes
in lawmaking activities present inconsistent effects on
numbers of groups, but that increases in spending are
strongly correlated with growth in groups. While lobbying
grew in tandem with state budgets, the effects of spending
vary across states are not statistically discernible in most.
The transformation of state government was a “quiet
revolution” in American politics (Elazar 1974, 90), and
served as both an energizing and destabilizing event for
interest groups. In a contemporary context, Lowery and
Gray (1995) show that different numbers of interest
groups lobby different state legislatures. In their model,
numbers of interest groups are a function of energizing
factors and stable institutions. Lawmaking activities
serve to energize groups into lobbying, whereas large-
scale changes in government, including in the size of
government, destabilize communities of interest groups.
While I employ their model specification to predict inter-
est populations, I examine a dataset that includes the
years of the quiet revolution. Specifically, I examine
numbers of interest groups registered to lobby in thirty
states from the 1890s to the present. Similar analyses
have neglected the revolution because of limited datasets.
By examining cross-sections of states starting in 1975, or
yearly observations from the past decade, other studies
generally find no or conditional relationships between
lawmaking or government spending, and lobbying (e.g.,
Boehmke 2005; Holyoke and Cummins 2020; Lowery
and Gray 1998; Strickland 2019b). These studies miss a
pivotal time in the states, and their findings are at odds
with studies of congressional lobbying. Jones, Theriault,
and Whyman (2019, 227–42) find that the number of
associations based in the nation’s capital more than tri-
pled between 1961 and 1981, and that this growth is
975490PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920975490Political Research QuarterlyStrickland
1Arizona State University, Tempe, USA
Corresponding Author:
James M. Strickland, School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona
State University, P.O. Box 873902, Tempe, AZ 85287-3902, USA.
Email: James.strickland@asu.edu
A Quiet Revolution in State Lobbying:
Government Growth and Interest
James M. Strickland1
What explains contemporary numbers of interest groups in America? To answer this question and help address
conflicting narratives in research, I examine the rise of interest groups in the states. Assembling an original dataset
based on archival and secondary sources, I find that relatively few groups lobbied legislators prior to the 1960s or
1970s. During those decades, numbers of interest groups began to grow rapidly. I find that increases in lawmaking
activities present inconsistent effects on the political mobilization of groups but increases in spending are strongly
correlated with mobilization. In additional tests, I find that the effects of spending on group numbers vary by state and
are not discernible in most states. In general, a historic transformation of state governments helps to account for the
growth of state lobbying. Interest groups have remained active in state capitols ever since.
lobbying, interest groups, state politics, government growth, public choice
2021, Vol. 74(4) 1181 –1196
1182 Political Research Quarterly 74(4)
2 Political Research Quarterly 00(0)
correlated with congressional lawmaking and spending.
Therefore, while my study helps to address conflicting
narratives of group mobilization in the states, it also
addresses inconsistent findings between studies of state
and federal lobbying.
America’s state capitols have not always been crowded
with hundreds of interest groups. Over time, state legisla-
tures have produced laws in more policy domains and
spent increasing amounts of money. Throughout much of
the twentieth century, the interest groups that lobbied
state legislators were small and stable in number. This
changed as states expanded their lawmaking activities
and budgets, thereby precipitating a quiet revolution in
state lobbying. I show that historic increases in group
numbers cannot be attributed entirely to improved lobby
laws, although such laws strengthened the relationships
between lawmaking, spending, and group numbers.
Of normative concern, as growth in lobbying mirrors
growth in government, growing governments may be
increasingly subject to interest group pressure, and
reforms may be needed to help insulate officials from
growing influence. Such reforms include limits on cam-
paign contributions or personal gifts. If interest groups
influence state policies or slow down the adoption of new
policies (a phenomenon coined “demosclerosis”), then
growing states may become increasingly unwieldy
Leviathans of interest coalitions and enact policies that
do not reflect the preferences of voters (Rauch 1994).
Alternatively, if lobbying activities respond to govern-
ment growth, then concerns over group influence on gov-
ernment are less warranted. I provide indirect insight into
these questions.
Government Growth and Interest
There are numerous institutions, associations, and mem-
bership-based groups in the United States, but not all
these organizations lobby legislators. Most of them never
or rarely lobby (Lowery 2007, 37–38). Organizations or
groups choose to lobby when their “wants and values”
intersect with public policy or legislative agendas (Bevan
2013, 547; Heinz et al. 1993, 24). Under this perspective,
political interests are created by government activity
(Leech et al. 2005, 20). While it is impossible to count all
the organizations within society, lobbyist registration
laws require disclosure of the organizations that lobby.
Such totals are known as “interest populations” (Gray
and Lowery 1996).1
Lowery (2007) argues that organizations lobby for dif-
ferent reasons in different contexts. Some lobby out of
instrumental, strategic considerations. Lowery highlights
the case of Microsoft, which did not hire lobbyists until the
U.S. Justice Department began to prosecute the company as
a monopolist in the late 1990s. Second, organizations some-
times lobby defensively to prevent the adoption of policies
they dislike. This is often the case if social or environmental
organizations advocate policy changes that businesses dis-
like. Most lobbying in Congress is defensive in nature
(Baumgartner et al. 2009). Lobbying might also be a nonra-
tional, purposive act for some groups, especially member-
ship-based groups. Finally, organizations may lobby to
achieve multiple goals concurrently. In addition to affecting
policy change, goals may include incentivizing member or
donor support and maintaining an organization’s reputation
as a major policy player.
Given that different groups lobby under different cir-
cumstances, the expansion of government activities (e.g.,
new laws or spending) can increase numbers of organiza-
tions that lobby in multiple ways. Studies of legislative
agendas and group mobilization suggest that more law-
making activity can energize groups into lobbying.
Legislative activity is seen as having the potential to cre-
ate both winners and losers, thereby affecting (and attract-
ing) the interests of more societal organizations. Studies
that link government activity with interest populations
include Baumgartner and Leech (1998), Gray et al.
(2005), and Leech et al. (2005). The prospect for policy
change encourages individuals into supporting groups.
Membership-based groups that engage in political advo-
cacy tend to last longer than those that do not (Bevan
2013). Groups may also mobilize to avoid potential
losses. Jones, Theriault, and Whyman (2019) argue that
the 1960s rise of citizen groups and expansion of policy
agendas in Congress led to a conservative backlash in
lobbying. New business interests mobilized in response
to higher taxes and more regulations. Hertel-Fernandez
(2019) documents similar processes in the states. During
the same decade, state taxes and spending on public edu-
cation increased. In response, business-supported, con-
servative groups began to form and pressure lawmakers
to roll back new spending. These groups were reacting
primarily to policy changes they disliked.
Separately, economists Buchanan and Tullock (1962,
285–87) argue that historic increases in lobbying are due
to new government spending. In their view, groups are
more likely to lobby as the perceived, potential benefits
from lobbying increase. Such benefits increase with state
spending, particularly spending on selective as opposed
to collective benefits. This is more akin to the instrumen-
tal lobbying Lowery (2007) mentions and implies that
government austerity curbs overall lobbying.
While the studies that link government growth with
interest populations offer different accounts of which
aspects of government (lawmaking or spending) are cor-
related with groups, narratives also differ over causal
directionality. Those who study legislative agendas tend
to argue that lawmaking attracts interests. Others argue

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