The South Carolina Governance Project

Center for Governmental Services, Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, The University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina 29208

Interest Groups in South Carolina

By Robert E. Botsch, USC Aiken



The negative reputation of interest groups is nothing new. As the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they worried about the negative impact of interest groups. Indeed, James Madison argued in Federalist Number 10 that "the regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation."

At the same time, being able to form interests for the purpose of influencing government is a fundamental freedom of all Americans. This right is recognized in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution (the right to assemble) and Article I, Section 2 of the South Carolina Constitution: "the General Assembly shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition government or any department thereof for a redress of grievances."

The Founding Fathers’ answer to this dilemma was to have a large variety of interest groups that would in effect counterbalance each other so that none could dominate and subvert the common interest. Political scientists today use the term "democratic pluralism" to describe this situation.

The broad purpose of this reading is to try to assess whether the conditions of democratic pluralism fit the changing interest group scene in South Carolina. To do so, we will explore a number of questions. What groups are active in the state? Is the diversity of groups growing? What are the targets of their activities and what methods do they employ? What efforts has the state taken to regulate these groups, and how successful have these efforts been? How important are interest groups in South Carolina politics relative to their power in other states? How important are groups relative to other political institutions? Which groups are most and which are least powerful in the state? Finally, we will assess the current situation. To what extent have we achieved the goal set out by the Founding Fathers?

Interest Groups in South Carolina

While political scientists use a variety of definitions of interest groups, South Carolina law uses the term "lobbyist’s principal" rather than interest group. Those people who are employed to actually influence policy are the lobbyists. Section 2-17-10 of the S.C. Code of Laws, as amended in 1991, defines a lobbyist as "any person who is employed, appointed, or retained, with or without compensation, by another person to influence by direct communication with public officials of public employees…." The law goes on to list the things that might be influenced, including actions and votes.

Political scientists use a variety of schemes to classify interest groups. Groups can be arranged by: ideology, size, range of issues addressed (from general to "single-issue" groups), kinds of entities represented (from citizens to occupations to corporations to groups of corporations and businesses, called "trade associations," to government entities, often called the "intergovernmental lobby"), or subject matter of their concern. No scheme is perfect. Let us briefly examine the range of groups found in S.C. politics.

Business Groups. Regardless of what scheme is used, groups that represent businesses and corporations on business-related issues are the most prolific, as is true in virtually all states. This is because the payoffs for lobbying success are so direct with business. A public policy victory usually translates into increased profits, a portion of which can be invested in additional lobbying efforts. Even preventing change has a payoff in terms of protecting profits. For businesses and corporations, lobbying is a cost of doing business.

The list of groups registered with the State Ethics Commission includes hundreds of businesses, corporations, and associations from "A" to "Y." Here is a sample: Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, AT&T, BellSouth, Ben Arnold (a beverage distributor), BMW, CP&L, Duke Energy, Electric Cooperative of SC, Georgia Pacific, Honda, Kimberly-Clark, Manufactured Housing, Miller Brewing, Paine-Webber, Pantry Stores, SC Association of Auto Insurance Agents, SC Bankers Association, SC Cemetery Association, SC Press Association, SC Trucking Association, Smokeless Tobacco, Stardancer Casino, Thomas Built Buses, UPS, Voyager Life Insurance, Waste Management, Inc., the Wine Institute, and the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce.

While a large variety of business interests operate in South Carolina, the most important entity is the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. In part this is because the Chamber represents about 2,500 separate member businesses from all over the state. In addition, the Chamber represents manufacturers as the state affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers. Manufacturing is a very significant part of the South Carolina economy, comprising about 24% of all the jobs in the state, eight percentage points over the national average. The Chamber has been a major player in most major recent policy battles in the state, ranging from the movement toward a stronger governor to the Confederate flag compromise to education reforms. Usually it gets what it wants. When its membership is not united, such as in the case of the November 2000 education lottery referendum, the group does not take a stand.

Within all these business groups, a number of important subgroups can be broken out. In past studies of interest groups in South Carolina, the most significant business groupings in terms of their reputations for power among legislators and in terms of campaign contributions were textiles, utilities, banks, insurance, and real estate, construction, health care, and waste management.

Agricultural Groups. Agriculture was once the backbone of the South Carolina economy. Cotton remained king in the rather tattered kingdom of post-Civil War South Carolina. With the rise of textile mills in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the state's cotton economy rested on two pillars, textiles and agriculture. Textile manufacturing firms in the Up-Country united with cotton-centered interests in the Low Country. The last half of the twentieth century has been one of marked decline for agriculture and especially for cotton. Between 1950 and 1990, the number of farmers dropped from 140,000 to about 35,000. In 1997 the cash value of cotton production was only about a sixth of the value of delivered timber production. At the turn of the twenty-first century, cotton is at best a prince in a shrinking agricultural kingdom.

However, agriculture remains a player in this much more diverse interest group environment. The S.C. Farm Bureau employed two registered lobbyists, and the Forestry Association had another. Other specific commodities, such as the S.C. Poultry Federation and the Dairy Association, had their own representatives. In 2001 the number one legislative issue for the Farm Bureau concerned preserving the farms that were still in operation by allowing farmers to sell development rights so that they could pay lower property taxes and keep their land in agricultural use. The second concern was protecting farms from being "taken" for public use by governments without compensation, whether it be literally taking the farm or regulation that limited how farmers could use their land. The legislature did not act on either issue.

Professional/Occupational Groups. Two factors explain the increasing range of professional and occupational groups that dot the interest group landscape in South Carolina. First, a more developed economy with a growing technical sector and large and growing service sector translates into more professions and occupations in the state. Public school teachers are represented (SCEA), as well as architects (American Institute of Architects, S.C.), mechanical engineers (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), media photographers (American Society of Media Photographers of S.C.), and athletic trainers (S.C. Athletic Trainers Association).

The second factor is that state government is engaging in regulation of more and more professions. For every regulated profession, one can almost certainly find an interest group representing the profession. For example, the National Cosmetology Association of S.C. represents beauticians who are regulated by the S.C. Board of Cosmetology.

The dividing line between professions and businesses is not always clear. Practitioners in many occupations, such as insurance agents, realtors, and even medical doctors and lawyers, are also businesses when they set up their own firms to pursue their careers. Therefore, real estate and insurance, previously discussed under business, could be considered professional groups. The reader should keep this overlap in mind.

Labor Groups. South Carolina has long been one of the least unionized states in the nation. In 2000 the state ranked 49th with 4 percent unionized, only slightly ahead of North Carolina. As a result, organized labor has relatively less clout in the state than in most other states. One of the main goals of powerful business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce has been to keep labor unions out of the state, and they have been quite successful in their efforts. A major tool in weakening efforts to unionize the labor force has been the "right-to-work" laws, passed more than 40 years ago. These laws outlaw the "closed shop," which would force all workers to join a union when a majority of workers vote to be represented by the union. The idea behind the closed shop is to prevent what is called "free riders," that is, workers who benefit from union contracts without having to pay to support the union efforts.

Even public employee unions, which, unlike private sector unions, have been growing nationally, are limited in South Carolina. State government does not engage in collective bargaining with public employees and prohibits strikes. S.C. Code (Section 8-11-33) only allows dues for the State Troopers' Association and State Employees' Association to be withheld in paychecks if they do not engage in collective bargaining or encourage members to strike. The simultaneous strikes by public school teachers and university professors in Hawaii in the spring of 2001 that ultimately led to double digit pay increases simply could not take place in South Carolina.

Public Interest ,Ideological and Religious Groups. This is a very diverse category. It includes what are sometimes called single-issue groups, which focus their attention on one or two issues. However, most groups address a range of issues. Virtually all of them pose as public interest groups in the sense that they advertise their positions as in the "common" or "public" interest, serving the general good. However, virtually all groups present themselves as working for the public interest. What distinguishes these groups from others previously discussed is that public interest groups gain no direct financial benefit from political victories. They provide what economists call "public" or "collective goods." What this means is best seen by example. When Thomas Bus Company's five registered lobbyists help persuade the legislature on the grounds of safety to borrow up to $8 million for 115 new school buses, as they did for the 2001 budget, the immediate beneficiary is Thomas and other bus companies. This kind of benefit is called a "private" or "selective good." But cleaner air provides benefits to all citizens, whether or not they are members of the environmental groups that fought for tighter standards. The same could be said of both pro-choice and pro-life groups. Their victories, even if they are working for opposite goals, provide "benefits" for members and non-members alike.

Ideologically, these groups are all over the political spectrum. Some, such as pro-life and the NRA, are quite conservative. Others, like the Sierra Club and pro-choice groups, are quite liberal. There are also many moderate groups, such as the League of Women Voters.

Religious groups have long been important in bible-belt states such as South Carolina. The Christian Coalition is probably the most prominent and visible example in recent years. The Christian Coalition has engaged in a range of electoral activities, such as the "Voter Guides" they distribute in churches across the state just before elections. They also wield great influence within the Republican Party. In low-turnout primary elections their votes can be decisive. Religious denomination organizations play a more episodic role. When an issue arises in which they have an interest, such as video poker or the lottery, they become activated.

Targets of Interest Group Activity and the Tools of Influence

In order to exercise influence, interest groups target every branch of government in South Carolina, are active in nearly all aspects of campaigns, and also try to mold public opinion. They employ a wide variety of tools in these efforts.

Because the legislature has been the center of political power and policy-making in the state, it is a principal target of lobbying. As the number of groups has increased, so has the number of lobbyists.

Lobbyists Registered with S.C. Ethics Commission


Number Registered















Source: S.C. State Ethics Commission

But even these figures underestimate the actual activity. S.C. law allows many groups to operate without registering because they do not directly contact public officials themselves to influence legislation. Rather, they gather information about legislation, inform their clients, and then the clients make contacts as private individuals. For example, neither BIPEC (Business and Industrial Political Education Committee) nor the S.C. Policy Council, both of which are considered prominent interest groups, is registered as a lobbyist's principal with the S.C. Ethics Commission.

Bureaucracy is an important target. Bureaucracy runs on information, and to the extent that interest groups can supply that information, they can influence the policies and regulations and the enforcement practices of state agencies. The South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVSA) is a small group of service providers and supporters with relatively little political power. According to their director, Vicki Bouris, one of their greatest successes is in assisting the training of DHEC and DSS workers about violence and abuse issues. Providing this kind of information is a typical example of bureaucratic lobbying. When the Public Service Commission has rate hearings, it relies heavily on information about costs provided by energy suppliers in making decisions.

When interest groups fail to achieve their policy goals with agencies or with the legislature, they often turn to the courts. For example, Horry County offered a developer, Burroughs & Chapin, a deal in which they were to pay fees in lieu of taxes, including school taxes, and then these fees would be used to build the infrastructure surrounding their commercial development. The local schools took the county to court claiming that the county was diverting school taxes to other uses. After they lost in the state district court, they filed an appeal with the S.C. Supreme Court. The S.C. School Boards Association announced that they would pay for the cost of the appeal. In another education-related example, forty school districts, mostly poor rural districts, banded together and sued the state in 1993 over funding. They argued that inequalities across the state were the result of inadequate state support and that this violated the state constitution. In 1999 the S.C. Supreme Court finally ruled that the state had failed to provide a "minimally adequate education." It went on to define what that meant in practice. The case went back to the lower court, and is still in litigation as of this writing.

Political support in campaigns is one of the most controversial ways in which interest groups can influence policy. The influence is usually indirect. Groups help friends win office and then help them stay in office. They work to defeat vulnerable incumbents. In some contested races groups may help fund both sides, hoping to win access so that they can provide information to whoever is in office after the election.

The potential for influence by interest groups is growing as the amount of money required for winning office increases. In the 1980s a legislative candidate could often run a competitive House race for about $5,000 and a Senate race for about $50,000. The rising price and increasing necessity to run media campaigns have greatly increased the price at the turn of the century. In 2000 the average spending for winning Senate candidates in the 25 contested races (out of 46 seats) was $162,000. On the House side winners in the 46 contested races (out of 124 seats) spent $41,000. In gubernatorial elections, the spending rose from a little over $2 million in 1992 to just over $9 million in 1998.

A significant portion of this money comes directly and indirectly from interest groups. Exactly how much is hard to say because of loopholes in reporting laws. Some money, called "soft money," falls outside S.C. law and is not reported at all. It comes in the form of contributions to political parties for "party-building" activities. Other money, which is reported, comes from groups that use names that do not describe their interest. For example, the Political Action Committee (PAC) that collects and distributes money for the Chamber of Commerce is called the "South Carolina Good Government Committee." Many other groups use generic names for their PACs. Moreover, reports filed by individual candidates list the names of individual contributors and do not include the business or the interest they represent. Clearly, these practices clearly undermine a central goal of reporting -- accountability.

From what we are able to learn about campaign contributions, we can draw several conclusions. Candidates need more and more money to run in campaigns, and interest groups can and do play a major role. Having the most money does not guarantee a win, but one must have a significant amount to have a chance. Interests tend to give to friends, especially to friends who happen to be incumbents.

Interest groups target public opinion – you and I. Interest groups engage in grassroots lobbying in many ways. College students write petitions to the governor concerning proposed budget cuts and how these cuts would affect the quality and cost of their education. Groups such as BIPEC spend considerable resources in rating legislators on the business friendliness of their voting record and then share that rating with members. MADD sends to its members with their renewal notice a report card giving the state a "C" for state laws on drunken driving laws. Pro lottery groups take out television ads featuring "Bubba," who is wearing a Georgia Bulldogs logo and telling viewers how much he "looooves" South Carolinians for buying lottery tickets in Georgia rather than having their own "education lottery."

If groups lack resources to buy television ads or pass out massive amounts of literature, they can try to generate positive publicity through demonstrations and direct contacts with legislators. Disabled citizens from around the state crowded into the State House in early 2001 to protest proposed budget cuts. USC students camped out on the Capitol grounds soon after, protesting proposed cuts for higher education.

Regulation and Reform

During the summer of 1990, the FBI announced indictments resulting from a sting operation, Operation Lost Trust, involving legislators and lobbyists. Twenty-eight people were eventually indicted, including eight lobbyists. It seemed to the public that "almost anything went" in the legislature, that wild parties, drugs, and payoffs were a way of life in the lobbying business.

Ethics reform became the major issue during the 1991 legislative session. The General Assembly was unable to pass a bill in the regular session, but given the public outcry, Governor Carroll Campbell called a special session and the bill became law. The law changed the relationship between legislators and lobbyists. Provisions included the following.

No campaign contributions, gifts, or entertainment from lobbyists, although whole committees or the whole legislative body could be invited to social events at which the cost is not per than $25 per person.

Legislators had to report in detail any business dealings they had with lobbyists.

If legislators practiced law before an agency they had to report that activity and could not vote on bills affecting the agency

In addition, because the scandal involved campaign contributions, the law placed some regulations on campaign finance.

Campaign money could be used only in running campaigns, not for personal expenses.

Cash contributions had to be $25 or less.

Each contributor was limited to $3,500 per election (primaries, run-offs, and general elections) and a total of no more than $10,500 per candidate in a statewide campaign, such as a gubernatorial election.

For other races, the limits were $1,000 per stage and $3,000 total.

Political parties could spend only $50,000 on a statewide campaign and $5,000 on a local race.

As is so often the case, these reforms, as tough as they may seem, did not solve the perception that interests use money to influence legislators, or at least buy access. Before many years had passed, political office seekers and interest groups found ways around the limits and even the reporting requirements. We saw some of the problems in campaign finance in the previous section, including soft money and reports that do not disclose contributor interests. Moreover, individuals and groups can spend unlimited amounts in independent campaigns for or against candidates and ballot questions, such as the 2000 lottery referendum. Interests can give up to the limit on any number of independent committees that are created to elect or defeat a candidate, so long as the committees are not coordinated by the official campaign. In the battle over the lottery, proponents were able to win a federal court ruling that threw out the $3,500 cap on donations.

Lobbyists found a loophole that allowed them to make campaign contributions to legislative campaigns. Because the legislative session normally ends in June and the campaigns for office follow later in the year, some lobbyists simply notified the S.C. Ethics Commission that they were no longer working as lobbyists after the legislature adjourned. Then when the next legislative session began the following year, they re-registered. The only cost was the $50 filing fee and some paperwork.

Another problem is the secrecy that critics say undermines enforcement. Anyone who files a complaint about an ethics violation, including campaign finance, runs the risk of jail time if they make the complaint public. Legislators wanted to protect officials from having to respond to baseless charges that would be later dismissed. But according to critics, without public pressure the Ethics Commission and the House and Senate Ethics Committees, which oversee campaign finance reports for candidates of each of these respective bodies, may be less than vigorous in their enforcement.

Having the House and Senate oversee their own members in regard to ethics is another potential problem. Two weeks after a medical doctor asked Senator Hugh Leatherman for help on a health care bill in early 1993, he received a letter from Leatherman asking for a $500 contribution to help retire the senator's campaign debt. After the doctor complained, he was told the letter was legal since it did not mention the original request. The Senate President Pro Tem suggested that the doctor file a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee. But Leatherman chaired the committee.

The legislature passed a significant reform bill in 2000. The bill would have required full reporting of all contributions to parties and independent expenditures—something Republicans wanted in the wake of all the outside and soft money spending on behalf of Democrats in the 1998 gubernatorial election and the 2000 lottery referendum. In addition the bill took some of the secrecy from complaints by allowing interested parties to sue within 50 days of an election if they felt that violations were not being addressed. The bill also would have created a study commission that was to make further suggestions on such reforms as stricter contribution and spending limits—something Democrats wanted. Moreover, the reforms had a time limit of two years, so that the commission’s report would have to be given serious consideration at the end of that time. But Governor Hodges vetoed the bill on the grounds that some provisions allowed last minute lawsuits just before elections and that any restraints on independent expenditures would be unconstitutional. Hodges then appointed his own study commission, which included the chairs of the two major parties, the president of the League of Women Voters, the executive director of S.C. Common Cause, and the U.S.C. Law School dean. Their report, issued in April 2001, has not resulted in any new legislation as of this writing.

Overall Power of Interest Groups

How powerful are interest groups in South Carolina? To what extent do they call the shots in terms of what happens and what does not happen? Are interest group priorities challenged by other institutions like political parties, a strong governor, or professionally oriented administrators? Are they forced to compromise with these other institutions or with each other?

In the early 1990s, a number of political scientists from across the nation performed a massive comparative national study of the interest groups within each of the fifty states. They found that South Carolina was one of six Southern states in which interest groups were "dominant." In five other southern states the influence was considered "dominant/complementary," meaning that interest groups sometime dominate, but they are equally likely to have less influence than political parties or a strong executive. Across the nation, in only three other states were interest groups seen as dominant.


But that was in the 1990s, and even then the picture was changing. Political scientists have identified a number of factors that affect interest groups’ power, and they can be applied to South Carolina.

1) The state policy domain. What groups are active and their level of activity at any given point in time are greatly influenced by the legal authority of the government and by the current policy agenda. This is why generalizing from any given year about which groups are most active and powerful can be very misleading. For example, in 1998-9 video poker dominated the agenda and in 2000-2001 the lottery dominated. Video poker lost and the lottery won. Once the lottery is in place, the pro-lottery forces could become dormant unless opposing groups try to re-open the question. Other kinds of policy questions are more consistently on the issue agenda. For example, because of a growing population living on land of constant size, land-use and growth-related policy questions will consistently stimulate interest group activity. Zoning, annexation, land use planning, wetland protection, and beachfront management are all clearly areas under the legal authority of state and local governments. More and more we will see pro-development groups challenged by environmental and preservationist groups. Local government agencies, which are more subject to control by popular majorities who are growing ever more concerned with congestion and quality of life issues, will challenge the once clearly dominant development groups.

2) Inter-governmental spending and policy-making authority. The question here is which level of government holds the authority and controls the spending of monies. Interest groups will naturally focus their attention at the level where the authority and money is. The trend toward devolution of policy responsibility to the state level will only increase in the short term. This alone should increase interest group activity in Columbia. The diversity of interest groups dealing with state-local conflicts is increasing. In the spring of 2001, the six largest cities in the state hired their own lobbying firm to represent them at the state level. They felt that the Municipal Association of S.C. (MASC) was not adequately representing their unique needs as large cities, although they will maintain MASC memberships as well. The long-term trend in South Carolina has been from state-centered and controlled government toward home rule, in which local units of government take on more and more responsibilities. To this extent, interest groups have had to become more active at the local level. Many local citizen groups oppose developments that affect the character of their communities – the "NIMBY" syndrome ("not in my back yard").

3) Political attitudes. More traditionalistic and conservative political cultures tend to foster interest group power. A traditionalistic culture disposes citizens to play a very passive and deferential role to government, thereby making them less likely to organize in opposition to groups that control government. Moreover, a conservative culture predisposes citizens to limit any government action that might regulate group activities. Certainly these conditions describe South Carolina's political culture for most of its history. Compared to citizens of other states, South Carolinians are still less likely to vote and less likely to believe that government action will improve anything. At the same time we can see some signs of change in the culture. A more diverse and educated citizenry calls for greater government action to aid education and to protect the quality of life. In addition, a long-standing moralistic flavor to the political culture condemns corruption and accumulation of power. The ethics and campaign finance reforms of the early 1990s have not ended the reform movement, as we have seen. Moralists combined with a growing group of middle-class progressives are slowly changing the culture.

4) Level of integration/fragmentation of the policy process. Interest groups thrive in a political environment where policy-making is fragmented. They need multiple access points to quietly exercise influence. The more that policy-making is centralized and visible, either in well-organized parties or in powerful governors, the more likely majority rule is to override interest group influence. Although the policy process in South Carolina is relatively fragmented, it is less fragmented than it was in 1990. At the turn of the twenty-first century the state has a competitive party system in which each party is forced to take issue positions rather than just run on the basis of candidate personality. Perhaps most notably, the governor has been strengthened. All of this reduces the access points for influence once enjoyed by interest groups.

5) Level of professionalism. Professionalism refers to the degree to which legislators are full-time, have support staff to help in issue research and administrative oversight, and the extent to which bureaucracy is chosen on the basis of merit and has research and support capabilities. Political scientists once thought that increasing professionalism would decrease interest group influence. However, the impact may be subtle, changing the character of interest group influence and methods more than the degree of interest group power. As government becomes more professional, interest groups match that professionalism. Lobbyists are more likely to use technical information and focus more on administrative lobbying and litigation rather than on the older methods of "wining and dining" legislators. The slow movement toward professionalism in S.C. government has made lobbyists operate more professionally. It has not significantly reduced their power.

6) Level of socioeconomic development. The more urban the state, the larger the middle-class, the more professionals, the greater the non-agricultural employment and the income equality, the more diverse the number of interests and the more likely people are to join groups and enter the fray of interest group activity. This trend makes dominance by once powerful groups more difficult. All of these trends clearly apply to South Carolina. The state has become more urban, more middle class, more educated, and the economy has become more diverse with a much larger service sector and now includes many international firms.

Some of these factors suggest that interest group power should be on the wane in South Carolina, while others suggest that the way groups operate may be the most significant change. In a recent survey, this author asked legislators whether interest group influence had changed during the last several years. More than three-fifths saw little change. Of those who did see change, nearly three times as many saw a gain in power as a loss in power. So while we may see long-term decline in interest group power in the state, it is happening quite slowly, if at all from the perspective of legislators.

Change in Interest Group Power as Perceived by Legislators

Lost Power Remained Same Gained Power
10% (6) 62% (37) 28% (17)

Power and Individual Groups

Which groups in particular are most powerful in South Carolina? One way to approach this question is to look at the reputation of groups among those in key political positions – what political scientists call the "reputational approach." Given the importance of the legislature in South Carolina politics, the reputations of groups among legislators is particularly important.

The author of this chapter has performed two surveys of legislators on the subject of interest group power in South Carolina in 1982 and in late 2000. A key question in both surveys asked legislators to list up to six groups that they saw as "the most powerful and most effective in making their case before the legislature." In the 2000 survey we also asked them which groups were least powerful and effective.

Comparing the results of each survey lends insight to not only who is powerful, but also to changing patterns of influence. The most powerful groups in both surveys were business groups, comprising about a third of all groups mentioned in both surveys. The Chamber of Commerce was the number one group in both surveys. Insurance, auto dealers, real estate and construction all remained powerful. However, there were some changes within the business group as well. Textiles, the second most powerful group in the early 1980s, disappeared as a distinct group. In 2000 textiles was merged in with other manufacturers in the S.C. Manufacturers Association.

Education related groups increased in reputation for influence. As a group, education had been ranked fourth, but by 2000 they moved to second. Within education, teachers, k-12 schools and school boards were seen as more powerful than higher education.

The number of "miscellaneous" groups that legislators saw as powerful dramatically increased. Between 1983 and 2000 the percentage of groups in this category increased from 4% to 12% of all mentions. The rise of such groups as MADD, senior citizen groups, and taxpayer groups added to the religious groups that have long been a part of the interest group scene.

Other major categories of groups included governmental groups, utilities, medical groups, and law, all comprising roughly about 10% of the groups mentioned in 2000. Utilities lost some ground, dropping from 14% in 1983 to 9% in 2000. The biggest shift downward was in the financial sector. Banks, ranked second in 1983 (mentioned at a 17% rate), fell to near the bottom at 3%, only a percentage point ahead of agricultural groups, which were near the bottom in both surveys. This fall be the result of bank mergers that made many South Carolina banks part of larger institutions that operated outside of the state.

When asked which groups were least powerful in 2000, legislators were most likely to mention environmental groups. The next least most powerful groups were civil rights groups, labor unions, teachers, and state agencies. The fact that teachers made both lists indicates that power, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder.

In addition to the reputational approach, political scientists employ other methods to measure power. The "decisions approach" looks at power as relative to the decisional area in question. One set of groups holds power in the issue areas that interest them and other groups hold power in areas of interest to them. For example, in the area of liquor laws, South Carolina is unique in requiring that bars and restaurants use the 1.7 ounce mini-bottles rather than allowing free-pouring with a one ounce shot glass. This translates into stronger drinks and more profits for those who sell alcohol to restaurants and bars, and less profit for the restaurants and bars. In this tiny area of law, liquor manufacturers and retailers have been successful in blocking any change.

The alternative "non-decisions approach" views some groups as powerful enough to keep questions that potentially threaten them off the issue agenda. Looking at actual decisions ignores this kind of power. Under this approach the researcher must consider how the social and political culture might be influenced so that certain questions do not arise. For example, the conservative culture of the state places many groups on the ideological left (environmental, civil rights, consumer groups) at a great disadvantage.

The group resources approach is less controversial. Almost any standard text will list factors that determine the power of particular interest groups. Among the most important factors usually listed are size, unity, intensity of concern, money, technical expertise, public image, leadership skills, ability to form coalitions, access to decision makers, power of the opposition, and whether the group is working for change or to protect the status quo.

The examples are almost endless. When asked about the membership of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, President and Executive Director Howard Hunter said that "a larger membership is crucial, but who your members are is also important." Having members across the state who are community leaders and who are on a first-name basis with legislators is a great resource. Money allows groups to make campaign contributions. Money also buys lobbyists, and groups employed over 300 in 2000 at a cost of over a million dollars to create and maintain lines of access. The decline in the power of textile interests reflects the industry's decline in numbers of employees and the relative decline in their relative economic importance in the state. Video poker groups and waste disposal groups had a poor public image and ultimately lost because politicians did not want to be associated with these groups. In 2001 hog farm interests had the same image problem. The power of economic development interests in the recent past has been reduced because they have become associated with negative images of sprawl and congestion and because new environmental and quality of life groups have begun to rise in opposition.

Another kind of power comes through direct representation. Those who enter the legislature arrive with a history. They were encouraged to run by personal and business associates, by interests. When they take the oath of office, they see the public interest of the state through a lifetime of experience. Because most are still part-time citizen legislators, they continue to have a business and personal life outside the three day a week session that lasts less than half the year. The table below shows the change in legislator occupations between 1982 and 2001. The largest change over the last twenty years is the rise in the election of members of the business community and the decline in the legal profession. As the number of farms and farmers continues to decline in the state, the number of legislators in farming is almost relegated to the "other" category. The rise in retirees is the other notable change. These legislators represent not only the graying population of the state, but the business and professional groups from which they came. Retirees can act as full-time legislators, given that they are free from the demands of making a living.

 S.C. Legislator Occupations, 1982 and 2001

Occupation 1982 2001
Business 26% 34%
Real Estate 12% 5%
Insurance 7% 5%
Law 34% 22%
Education 4% 4%
Farm 9% 4%
Full-time legislator 4% 4%
Retired 2% 14%
Other 4% 7%


Let us reconsider the question with which we began. Are the conditions of democratic pluralism met in South Carolina? Are groups diverse enough so that they do check and balance each other? Can they be regulated by other political institutions? Is the common good better protected than it once was?

While interest groups may have once been almost totally dominant, perhaps as recently as the early 1990s, the environment in which they operate has been undergoing change. Other institutions have been growing stronger. Specifically, the political parties are better organized because they now exist in a competitive party system. The governor now heads what is at least a weak cabinet system of government, and he is able to serve a second term. State bureaucracy has become more professional. Moreover, the state has developed a more diverse economy in which more interests find themselves in competition with each other. Finally, a changing population is slowly changing the political culture of the state. While it is yet quite conservative, relatively more citizens have more education and income and are more willing to embrace new ideas and cultural diversity. They, along with a growing retirement population, are more likely to embrace preservationist values and quality of life values, where once citizens worshipped only at the alter of economic development.

Legislators recognize that interest groups have a variety of competitors in shaping public policy in the state. We asked legislators in the 2000 survey to rank order interest groups and six other entities on their importance in policy-making. Interest groups came in third. Not surprisingly, they rated the General Assembly as first. However, the governor was a clear second in influence, and interest groups were barely ahead of political party in a state where parties are playing a greater role in structuring political activity. Agencies, once powerful independent entities before restructuring, tied with the media for next to last place, while the judiciary, which rarely plays an activist role in policy-making in South Carolina, was a clear last.

We also asked legislators to evaluate the role of interest groups. They do not see them as negatively as the public generally does. The most frequent answers were that interest groups are "sometimes useful" or that they were "necessary and valuable." Few chose negative answers. Representative Bill Cotty (R-Richland Co.) spoke for most other legislators when he said that lobbyists "are a great research tool. They help you sort out information. And because of them, we end up with much better legislation, and as a result, much better laws."

Overall Impact of Interest Group Activity on Policy Making

Contrary to public Interest Ineffectual and unnecessary Reduces Rationality Sometimes Useful Necessary andValuable
3% (2) 0% (0) 3% (2) 55% (33) 38% (23)

The question of whether interest groups subvert the common good assumes that interest groups are alien to average citizens. Yet, if the reader will consider her or his own affiliations, the question must be altered. In a large society, whether South Carolina or the nation, we, as individuals, have little power. We certainly cannot match the power of the wealthy few. Yet, through organized interests, we sometimes can match their power. We can pool our individual resources, hire our own experts, provide technical information to legislators and bureaucrats, pursue litigation, and even run public relations campaigns to sway public opinion. Many middle-class citizens already do that through memberships in teachers' organizations, professional associations, civic groups, student groups, religious organizations, and the like.

The answer that the American system of government -- and South Carolina's government -- has to the challenge posed by organized interests is democratic pluralism combined with a responsible and reasonably powerful chief executive. Because of the constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble and organize and petition government, there is really no other realistic alternative. Clearly, South Carolina has been moving in that direction, even though the average citizen often feels overwhelmed by the money of the most powerful groups in the state.

However, this picture of the flowering of thousands of competing interest groups faces several very serious caveats. First, many of us have abandoned public life by tuning out and turning off to all things political, including group memberships. We live transient lives with little connection to our communities. Second, there is a tendency toward what has been called "checkbook membership." That is, we tend to join groups, but do little more than pay the membership fees. We are simply too overburdened to do more than write an annual check. Finally, a class bias exists in organization that leaves those in the lower and the working-classes underrepresented through interest groups, especially in a state with virtually no labor unions.

While the answers to these complex social/political problems are also complex, we must encourage and empower others to organize as best we can. Understanding how the system works is an essential part of empowerment. The American system is rooted in the belief that the public interest is determined in a full and open competition among groups, each of which has a different conceptualization of the public interest. That competition cannot take place when so many are so ignorant about their role and responsibilities. Stalemate and gridlock, another danger of democratic pluralism, can be averted by a strong party system that chooses elected leaders on the basis of some broad consensus of the nature of the public interest. Elected leaders must have the powers to make and carry out policy.

While these conditions are certainly not fully met in South Carolina, we can see significant movement toward a mature interest group system over the last several decades. Interest groups still often dominate policy-making in the Palmetto State, but in early 2001 they face a great deal more competition than they once did from within their own ranks and from other institutions.


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