America's Legislators Back to School Program

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High School Lesson Plan III - "Whose Special Interests?"

The Role of "Special Interest Groups" in Legislation


Rationale of the Lesson

In the late 20th and early 2lst centuries "special interests" have, in the public view, become the very essence of evil in politics and public policy making. In 1787, in Federalist #10, James Madison warned us of the dangers of "factions." Madison said, "by a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Madison concluded that the way to control the problems of faction was to create a large republic where no one faction could gain undue influence. The problem today is that many people believe that interest groups have acquired undue influence compared to the influence of the public at large. However, the facts of American political life tend to support a different view of interest groups.

It is very common political behavior for Americans to come together in voluntary associations in an effort to deal with mutual problems or address common concerns. [Farm Bureau, AFL-CIO, MADD, NAACP, NOW] It is also very common for such groups to seek to have their views heard by legislatures by hiring lobbyists to speak for them. Many groups form political action committees [PACs] to support the election of candidates they believe have views compatible with their views. The very special interests we fear and complain about may actually be "us." The purpose of this exercise is to determine if the public perception of interest groups is accurate and to determine what effects these groups have on legislation.


At the conclusion of this Lesson, students should be able to:

  • define the terms faction, interest group, association, lobbyist, political action committee

  • identify and explain the concerns many citizens have with interest group politics

  • identify the arguments in favor of interest group politics and lobbying

  • discuss the effects of interest group activities on legislation

Background Preparation/ Materials for the Teacher

Contact your America's Legislators Back to School Week state legislative coordinator ( as soon as possible to arrange for a visit from a legislator during the third week of September. As soon as a legislator's visit is arranged, write the legislator a note telling him or her:

name of the class, age of the students, size of the class, length of the class, topics to be addressed in the visit, include a copy of this lesson plan. 

Obtain a copy of Federalist Paper #10 by James Madison for every student to use in class. A good, readable copy can be obtained from the AVALON PROJECT AT YALE UNIVERSITY at

[large print- 8 pages].

Another source of Federalist Papers is from THOMAS - PROJECT GUTENBERG at: [small print - 3 pages]

Another excellent source for all historical and political science background resources is the LIBERTY LIBRARY OF CONSTITUTIONAL CLASSICS at:

To obtain information on the voting record of your state legislator or congressman as seen through the eyes of various interest groups use the following very helpful site at PROJECT VOTE SMART: [go to categories - choose special interest groups to see how your legislators were rated by various groups]



THE LESSON PLAN - " Who are the Special Interests?"--"What Effect do They Have on Public Policy Making?"

 Time Requirement--Approximately four class periods plus an extra day for poll taking.

Part I - Read and discuss in class - Federalist #10 by James Madison.

  • What did James Madison say he meant by faction [ie. interest group]?

  • What danger to American representative democracy and freedom did Madison believe factions represented?

  • What solution did Madison see to the dangers of factions?

  • Do we still have factions today? What do we call them? What are some examples of modern factions? Modern estimates suggest that there are more than 20,000 interest groups in America today. What would James Madison think of this? Did his concerns turn out to be true?

Part II - Assignment

Use the poll form on pages 3 and 4 to get an idea of the groups people belong to in your school community. Have each student ask the poll questions of ten adults. Make sure everyone asks different adults. Give students two days to collect data.

Have students do the poll on themselves in class. It will be interesting to see how the students and adults compare in their answers.

A more complete list of special advocacy groups and what they believe in can be found on the Internet at Political Advocacy Groups: Alphabetical List of All Groups Collect and tabulate results.


PART III. - Discuss the results of  your opinion poll.  Discuss answers to the questions below:

What conclusions can you draw from your poll?

Do members of groups seem to recognize that they are part of "special interests?"

Are special interest groups protected by the 1st amendment's "freedom of speech and association?" Should they be?

What limitations, if any, should be placed on the activities of special interest groups?


  • lobbying?
  • forming political action committees to elect candidates with like views?
  • spending money on campaigns?
  • joining law suits as amicus curiae before the appellate courts to argue for the groups view of issues?
  • testifying before legislative committees?

Have individuals, acting alone, lost the ability to persuade legislators to vote one way or another on legislation?

Part IV - Using the Project Vote Smart web site determine if there are any interest group evaluations of the voting record of the legislator who is coming to visit you.

Legislator's visit

  • Conduct a PRESS CONFERENCE with the legislator asking the legislator questions about the role of special interests in your state legislature.
  • Each student should prepare at least three questions, in writing, to ask the legislator. Use your poll results to see what the legislator thinks of what you have found.



This project is supported by a Robert H. Michel Civic Education Grant sponsored by The Dirksen Congressional Center, Pekin, IL.

Posted 9/10/01