John Gardner’s Interest Group Design: The Foundation and Evolution of a Lobbying Organization

2018-02-08T00:00:00Z (GMT) by Marcie Reynolds
In 1970, John W. Gardner founded Common Cause, the first national government reform lobby. Common Cause lobbyists—and the organization— soon earned a reputation for integrity and influence among Members of Congress and the American public. For almost thirty years, Common Cause operated according to action principles set forth by early leaders (or Gardner’s Rules). Yet, by the mid-1990s organizational survival was in question. Existential crises increased pressure on the organization to amend Gardner’s Rules. A tipping point was reached when top positions were filled by leaders relatively new to Common Cause. Their reorganization plans introduced significant changes to the group’s operations and culture. New leaders amended long-held action principles. For example, the Common Cause Education Fund (a 501c3 arm enabling tax-deductible contributions but limiting lobbying activities) was added as a means to gain foundation grants. State office campaigns received more attention and resources. Grassroots mobilization became a primary advocacy strategy instead of filling a supporting role for professionalized lobbying. In addition, financial considerations forced leaders to sacrifice descriptive representation processes. Leaders increasingly took on trustee-like roles, selecting and promoting issues that citizens chose to support. Yet, the ubiquity of internet activism suggests at some level leaders must listen to their supporters. Thus, a case study of Common Cause is a means to explore dual representation, or how an elite leadership represents the “what before the who.” Historical analysis of Common Cause from 1991 to 2017 contributes a longitudinal perspective of organizational maintenance and advocacy dynamics through evolving contexts. When combined with prior case studies by Andrew S. McFarland (1984) and Lawrence S. Rothenberg (1992), this project creates a sequence of analytical research about one interest group spanning over forty-five years, a unique contribution to the field. Moreover, it provides a lens for studying how key aspects of the U.S. political system—interest groups, collective action, lobbying, and representation—work as the environment changes.

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