Texas has a long history of powerful interest groups. These groups represent a wide array of interests, advocate for innumerable agendas, and generally play a very important role in state politics. However, political scientists have not performed extensive research on interest groups in the state, so the activities and the precise nature of their influence is often difficult to determine. Nevertheless, we can describe some of the major interest groups that attempt to promote their objectives and reach in the state.
The vast majority of interest groups in the state are economic interest groups—groups that exist to promote economic conditions favorable to and economic opportunities for their members. About twenty percent of interest groups are economic interest groups. They also tend to be the largest and most powerful groups because members of these groups have a vested financial interest in the success of the group. They also tend to be the best organized and most influential interest groups. They also enjoy vigorous individual involvements, commitment, and resources because economic interests generally inspire the dual concerns of both business and individuals. Business groups, labor unions, and professional associations are among the most notable economic interest groups.
Business Groups Large companies usually maintain specific units designed to function as the interest group for the company (Figure 6.1). These company typically have wide and varied interests. Most businesses belong to associations which often engage in interest group activities to advocate for the interests of their members. Another type of business association, a trade association, typically focuses on one particular industry, and its members are drawn exclusively from that industry. Businesses, business associations, and trade associations usually have an advantage over individuals since an individual is highly likely to benefit far less than if he or she was a member of a larger, well-resourced, and more powerful interest group. Thus, people with common interests working together in groups are more effective than the same number of people working independently. The Texas Association of Business and the National Federal of Independent Business––Texas are among the most powerful business interest groups in the state.15
Figure 6.1 Defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin sell extensively to the government and must, of necessity, engage in lobbying to win contracts. SOURCE: Piergiuliano Chesi.
Labor Unions Labor unions, which historically emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, promote the interests of only those who have joined the union. Then, workers organized to threaten strikes against business owners to protest against employee exploitation, low wages, few or no benefits, and poor and unsafe working conditions. Unlike those who hold professional and service employees, who tend to organize and join professional associations, skilled and unskilled laborers are more likely to belong to a union.
Texas is an “open shop” state, meaning that employees in the state maintain the option of whether or not to join a certified union. A company that has a union hires both union and non- union employees, and union membership is not a requirement for continued employment. The open shop policy was enhanced by the Texas legislature in 1955, which prohibited a union member or members to strike or picket to force an employer to recognize the union or to force other employees to accept the union as a bargaining agent if the union does not actually represent a majority of the employees working when the strike began. The 1955 act also established the procedures for holding an election to determine the sentiments of the employees, procedures clearly designed to make the union's organization efforts more difficult.16
In 2019, union members accounted for four percent of wage and salary workers in Texas. Nationwide, union members accounted for 10.3 percent of employed wage and salary workers in 2019. Since 1989, when comparable state data became available, union membership rates in Texas have been below the U.S. average.17 The largest Texas union is the Texas American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which has approximately 240,000 members.18
Higher levels of education and advances in technology have transformed the state’s workplace. Perhaps the biggest change has been an increase in professional, technical and service jobs and a decrease in the number of skilled and unskilled labor jobs. Professionals organize to promote and protect their economic interests through membership in professional organizations which lobbying on their behalf.
Two of the fastest growing number of professionals are physicians and attorneys, both of which are regulated by the state government. The Texas State Bar Association (SBA) represents approximately 90,500 active and resident attorneys in the state. The SBA contends that the organization is not merely an association or trade group designed to benefit the profession, although serving lawyers is one of its core commitments. Rather, it also focuses on supporting the administration of the legal system, assuring all citizens equal access to justice, fostering high standards of ethical conduct for lawyers, enabling its members to better serve their clients and the public, educating the public about the rule of law, and promoting diversity in the administration of justice and the practice of law.19 Similarly, the Texas Medical Association (TMA) advocates for Texas physicians by engaging in legislative, regulatory, and legal advocacy to improve protect, and strengthen medical practices in the state, ensuring that Texas physicians receive timely and equitable payment for medical services rendered, increasing membership and member involvement to ensure the ongoing financial health and governance strength of the association, and enhancing the powerful, effective, and unified voice of Texas health care providers. The TMA asserts that if these goals are met, the environment in which Texas physicians care for their patients will also be enhanced, more efficient, quality of care will be delivered to the state’s growing population, and patient-centered, cost-efficient, physician- directed care will be guaranteed.20
Interesting, the Texas Association of Realtors and its affiliates is arguably the most well- funded trade association in the state, as more money passed through them in the 2016 election cycle than any other such group. Realtors in Texas are also one of the most well-known interest groups in Austin, and have been for years.21 This organization boasts more than 130,000 members, we advocate on behalf of REALTORS® and private property owners to protect private property rights and promote public policies that benefit homeowners.22
Non-economic groups promote issues in which they believe, but they do not provide members with individual financial benefits. Instead, members of non-economic groups work for what they believe is the benefit of society as a whole, not just members of the group. These benefits are often called public or collective goods. These benefits may be purposive benefits (emotional and psychological benefits members receive knowing they have contributed to a cause they feel is worthwhile); solidarity benefits (benefits members receive after meeting new people and friends they work with to promote the cause); or informational benefits (educational benefits members receive after learning more about the issues that matter to them).23
Public Interest Groups Public interest groups promote the broad, collective good of citizens and consumers. They pursue goals which, if achieved, provide benefits to the public at large or to a broader population than the group's own membership. Many public interest groups seek to promote political reforms that enhance the role of the public in the political process. Since there is no single, universally applicable definition or test of the public good, there is often significant disagreement about what is—and is not—in the public interest. This is especially so when different public interest groups taking vastly different positions on a number of issues. Thus, with a single issue, several quite different public interests may be at stake.
The League of Women Voters of Texas is an example of a public interest group. It is a nonpartisan, grassroots civic organization that encourages informed and active participation in government. The League works to increase understanding of major public policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. Membership in the League is open to people sixteen years of age or older.24 The League believes that democratic government depends upon informed and active participation in government and that this public interest goal is met by providing nonpartisan voting and election information to Texas voters without supporting or opposing political candidates or parties.25 In addition, this group encourages people to become personal issue advocates by encouraging informed and active participation
in government, increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.26
Common Cause–Texas (CCT) is another public interest organization. CCT’s mission statement provides:
Using a powerful combination of grassroots organizing, coalition building, policy development, public education, lobbying and advocacy, we work towards solutions that will reduce the influence of money in politics, end partisan gerrymandering and ensure that our elections are free, fair and accessible.27
Common Cause advocates for pro-democracy reforms that it contends are in the public interest. Those reforms included promoting ethical, open accountable government, reducing the influence of money in politics, ensuring fairly drawn, non-gerrymandered districts and representation that more closely resembles the voters, expanding voting rights and assuring the integrity of elections, and protecting the Constitution and the independence of the courts and judges.28
A number of other organizations also qualify as public interest groups and enjoy tax- exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Three of those organizations are public charities, private foundations, and private operating foundations. A public charity is an organization with active programs. Examples include churches, animal welfare agencies, educational organizations, and benevolence organizations (a group organized for charitable purposes, such as Galveston’s Hebrew Benevolent Society, which established the first Jewish cemetery in Texas in 1855). They usually receive a substantial portion of its revenue from the general public or from government. A private foundation is often referred to as a non- operating foundation because it does not typically have active programs. Because they are not required to be publicly supported, they must seek alternative funding from a relatively small number of donors, single individuals or families. Private foundations are usually thought of as “nonprofits” which support the work of public charities through grants. A private operating foundation often maintains active programs similar to a public charity, but it also share attributes with a foundation. Thus, private operating foundations are often considered hybrids. The focus of many of these 501(c)(3) organizations is religious, charitable, scientific, public safety, literary and educational.29
Issue and Ideological Groups Interest groups that focus on specific issues and ideological perspectives are known as issue and ideological groups. Some groups focus on a single-issue area or are heavily partisan. Some of the most popular issues are the right to choose (abortion), gun control, health care, the environment and foreign policy. State groups that are keenly interested in abortion-related issues are Texas Right to Life and the Texas chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. The two primary and perhaps most powerful groups advocating for the protection of the lawful possession and use of firearms, promoting gun safety training, and supporting shooting sports, hunter education, and wildlife conservation efforts are the Texas State Rifle Association and Friends of the NRA (National Rifle Association) – Texas (Figure 6.2). The Lone Star Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy in Texas are examples of interest groups that focus on clean air and water, alternative energy solutions, responsible transportation programs, and ensuring a stable climate.
Figure 6.2 Texas Gun Rights Lobby Pushing Back on Calls for New Laws
Note. Gay, Eric. Associated Press (Aug. 2019). Texas’ gun-rights lobby swiftly pushed back after Governor Greg Abbott raised the possibility of tighter firearms laws in response to a gunman killing twenty-two people and injuring twenty-four others at an El Paso Walmart on August 3, 2019. A gun- rights rally was held outside the Capitol on August 23 and included members of Open Carry Texas and Gun Owners of America.30
Other groups—ideological groups—have a broader focus than a particular issue or set of policy issues. Both liberal and conservative ideological groups operate in Texas politics. For example, Americans for Democratic Action is a liberal political organization that advocates for progressive policies and works for social and economic justice. One of its counterparts, the Texas Conservative Coalition, promotes limited government, individual liberty, the free enterprise system, grassroots involvement by voters, and the election and accountability of conservative candidates and legislators. Two other groups that fall within this category are the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas (which advocates for the civil rights and liberties of state citizens) and the Texas Christian Coalition (a purely political organization composed of pro-family Americans who identify, educate and mobilize Christians for effective political action through elections, public presentations, leadership training programs, education of timely issues and legislation, and peaceful protests).
The groups mentioned above are not exclusive to the political process in Texas. A number of other types of groups seek to promote their particular agendas. Government interest groups— which represent federal, state, and local government agencies, and other members of the government who are both elected and other chosen—also organize for the purpose of influencing public policy. State and local governments are becoming strong organized interests as they lobby the federal government for earmarks (funds that an appropriations bill designates for a particular purpose within a state or congressional district) or other public monies or solicit funding from charitable foundations for a vast array of state and local programs. Focused Advocacy and the Texas School Board Association are examples of government interest groups in Texas.
Other such groups include social groups such as the Texas Public Interest Research Group (which focuses on healthy living choices, recycling programs, safer marketplace choices for consumers, and greater accountability in government) and the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas (the state affiliate of the nation’s original and largest organization representing LGBT conservatives and straight allies who support fairness, freedom, and equality for all Americans).
Ethnic Interest Groups Racial and ethnic groups are advocacy groups established along cultural, ethnic, or racial lines by an ethnic group for the purposes of influencing not only state and national domestic policy relating to those groups and their members but also the country’s foreign policy affecting homelands of group members with which they identify.
Ethnic interest groups, such as the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), represent historically ignored or marginalized ethnic groups of people who have suffered historical discrimination on many levels. The federal and state governments have attempted to address and remedy historic discrimination as far back as the early 1800s, and significant progress has been made on this front. Gone are the days when poll taxes, among other voting restrictions, severely hindered the ability of ethnic minorities, and specifically African Americans, from wielding any political influence through the electoral process. While many civil rights successes should be acknowledged and celebrated, Texans must also acknowledge that the absence of these blatant discriminatory practices does not mean that other, more systemic and unaddressed types of discrimination (e.g., stereotyping, bias, and profiling) against various ethnic groups in the state no longer exists.
Gender-Based Groups Gender-based groups are typically outspoken and very public political advocacy groups. For example, the National Women’s Political Caucus–Texas is a nonpartisan organization committed to increasing the number of women elected to public office and appointed to public policy positions. National Organization for Women–Texas generally works to eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace, schools, the justice system, and all other sectors of society. It is also vigorously involved in securing abortion, birth control and reproductive rights for women, ending all forms of violence against women, and eliminating racism, sexism and homophobia. Concerned Women of America–Texas, however, a group which claims to promote Biblical values and constitutional principles through prayer, education, and advocacy, seeks to impact the state’s culture through education and public policy. Men in Texas may become members of The National Center for Men, which seeks to educate the public about the adverse effects of sex discrimination, advocates for men’s equality rights, and counsels men and women from a male-positive point of view). In addition, the Men’s Story Project (MSP) seeks to strengthen social norms around the world that support healthy masculinities, prevent violence, eliminate racism, and fight for gender justice.
Faith-Based Organizations The number of faith-based organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy has increased roughly 500 percent in the past four decades. Among the most well know of these groups is the Family Research Council. Texas Values, a state affiliate of the Family Research Council, works with state legislators, local government officials, and community leaders to encourage and initiate pro-family policies. Its members are specifically interested in advocating for their core beliefs in the sanctity of human life and in the traditional institution of marriage.
There is, however, one striking disadvantage from membership in a large interest group—the free-rider problem. A free rider is a person who chooses to not join or contribute to an interest group that represents his or her interests. As a result, the individual enjoys the benefits of membership usually procured by the time, effort, energy and financial resources of a larger group without paying the costs. This phenomenon typically occurs when membership in the interest group is optional, not mandatory (e.g., public television is funded and produces programming for people to watch whether they contribute or not).31
15. Vote Smart. Texas Special Interest Groups (2020).
16. Ruth A. Allen and James V. Reese. Union Regulation. Texas State Historical Association: Handbook of Texas (2020).
17. Union Members in Texas – 2019. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019).
18. Benjamin Wermund. Largest Texas Labor Union Backs Progressive Cisneros over Incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar. San Antonio Express News (2020).
19. Trey Apffel. A Mission-Focused Bar. State Bar of Texas (2020).
20. TMA 2025 Goals. Texas Medical Association (2020).
21. Texas Association of REALTORS. Transparency USA (2017).
22. Become a Member. Texas REALTORS (2020).
23. Terry Alejandro. Interest Groups: Voice of the People or Nuisance. Grand Canyon University. (in PUBLIC ADM 632 Intergovernmental Relations).
24. League of Women Voters of Texas (2020). https://my.lwv.org/texas.
25. Voting and Elections. League of Women Voters of Texas (2020).
26. Advocacy and Issues. League of Women Voters of Texas (2020).
27. Common Cause of Texas (2020). https://www.commoncause.org/texas/
28. Our Work. Common Cause of Texas (2020).
29. What is a 501(c)(3)? –Types of 501(c)(3) Organizations. Foundation Group (2020).
30. Jim Vertuno. Texas Gun Rights Lobby Pushing Back on Calls for New Laws. Associated Press (2019).
31. Kenneth Dautrich, David Yalof, Charldean Newell, David Prindle, and Mark Shomaker. American Government: Historical, Popular, and Global Perspectives - Texas Edition (Boston: Cengage, 2010).