Archive | Interest Groups

On the Political Power of the Gun Rights and Gun Control Lobbies

Here are some relevant studies.

Here is a 2006 overview of the National Rifle Association by Kelly Patterson and Matthew Singer (from this volume; hat tip to Burdett Loomis).  It details the growth in NRA membership over time and the benefits it provides to members.  It describes the political activities of the NRA, including campaign contributions, up through 2004.  Here was a particularly interesting tidbit:

In another poll taken in March of 2005, 73 members of the House identified the NRA as the most powerful lobbying group on Capitol Hill.  However, in November 2005 when 169 members of Congress were asked which lobby their party would “buck more often if the group weren’t so powerful,” the NRA was the most frequent response among Republicans and the second most frequent response among Democrats.

This 1990 paper (gated) by Laura Langbein and Mark Lotwis and a follow-up paper by Langbein examined congressional votes on the Firearm Owners Protection Act.  Campaign contributions from the NRA were largely targeted at pro-gun members to begin with, but had the effect of strengthening their support for this bill.  Contributions from Handgun Control were similarly targeted only at members who already favored gun control and did not appear to matter.  But lobbying by gun control forces and police organizations did succeed in weakening support for the bill among some pro-gun members.

The power of pro- and anti-gun control forces may be more limited with regard to driving news coverage, however.  In this 2001 study by Karen Callaghan and Frauke Schnell, they studied interest group frames and media frames surrounding the Brady Bill and Assault Weapons Ban (1988-96).  They found that the news media’s frames were largely independent of those promoted by the NRA or Handgun Control. The balance of pro- or anti-gun control frames in the media was instead most strongly influenced by the salience of the issue to the public.  The larger the fraction of Americans identifying crime and violence as the most important issue facing the country, the more pro-gun control the news tilted.  This suggests that media frames were mainly geared around the attitudes of news consumers.

This 2000 study (gated) by Marcia Godwin and Jean Reith Schroedel looked at the adoption of local gun control ordinances in California in the 1990s.  They argue that a key element of the pro-gun control campaign was a new “policy image”—arguably, a frame—that focused on the public health consequences of gun violence.  They cite the efforts by the California Wellness Foundation’s Violence Prevention Initiative.  One quote from the Foundation’s annual report in 1996 illustrates:

Today communities no longer accept the conventional view that violence is simply a crime. In the past four years, Californians have rallied around a preventive health strategy against violence that goes after the main agent of this disease-handguns-and the hosts- and hopeless young people-in ways proven over decades to successfully stem epidemics. The Foundation did not begin this effort; it rose out of communities that have long struggled, often in isolation, to defeat society’s most virulent virus. But this initiative did help inform the public debate and embolden communities to take action.

Here is a December 2011 blog post by Nate Birkhead on the prospects for gun control in the wake of the Giffords shooting.  He is pessimistic, and many things have not changed since he wrote.  He rightly focuses on dynamics in Congress. I am seeing too much focus on Obama right now by advocates of gun control, and too little on how to build a winning coalition in Congress and especially the House.  Seth Masket weighs in.

Please leave additional cites to relevant research, with links if possible, in comments.

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Many a Slip ‘Twixt Cup and Lip

A couple of today’s headlines remind us that we need to pay attention not just to the ballyhoo when laws are passed but to the difficulties of turning statute into tangible reality. The 2010 food safety law extending the reach of the Food and Drug Administration is stalled in the process of regulatory review at OMB – a process tentatively begun by President Nixon, revamped by President Reagan, and maintained by all presidents since, in an effort to ensure that departmental regulations reflect presidential preferences.

And the lengthy efforts to specify the tenets of the so-called Volcker Rule dealing with banks’ proprietary trading (part of the Dodd-Frank law) stands as a poster child for how an ostensibly simple idea can be extraordinarily difficult to put into workable practice.

I’ve recently written about some of the ways the American system shapes implementation, with special regard to education policy, in a piece for Education Week. It centers on the idea that the types of policy that are most readily implemented come down to two basic forms: bribery, and blackmail. More here.

The titular proverb, by the way, apparently has its roots in a story about a returning Argonaut – who had been told by a local soothsayer that he would never again get to drink his vineyard’s wine. Returning home from his travels with Jason, the Argonaut summoned the soothsayer to offer a mocking toast. But before he could take a sip, he was called away to deal with a rampaging wild boar – which killed him.

So, don’t mess with soothsayers, and don’t take implementation for granted.

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Culture war: The rules

Could somebody remind me—-I have so much difficulty keeping track . . . poker and Nascar are all-American, but feed caps and PBR are inauthentic, they’re just for hipsters, right? I have a feeling that poker was inauthentic a few years ago, but now that the fad has peaked, poker-playing is normal again. How about MMA? That sure sounds all-American, but given that I’ve actually heard about it, maybe it’s just another example of upper-class slumming. On the upside, I have a feeling that if we wait a few years, gay rights will go downmarket enough that it will be ok to go to a pride march without forfeiting one’s credentials as a middle-American. $45 pasta, though: I think that will remain upper-class.

Background here (via Jay Livingston).

P.S. This discussion is appropriate for our blog because it relates to questions regarding social divisions that arise in discussions of politics.

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The Anti-Tax Pledge and its Electoral Consequences

In this time of April, when most people think about taxes it involves making sure they get filed, as well as how much you owe (or are owed by) the government. But taxes can also play a crucial role in electoral politics. Generally, we tend to think of taxes as one of (if not the paramount) issue on which voters are able to judge which party’s policy proposals are closer to their own.

New research by political scientists Michael Tomz and Robert Van Houweling, however, also illustrate that taxes can become closely linked to electoral politics through another mechanism: the “political pledge”, best exemplified by Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge. Here’s the abstract from their paper:

How can interest groups secure credible policy commitments from politicians? Previous research has argued that groups screen politicians to identify true believers, and they enforce commitments through repeated interactions. We argue that political pledges provide another solution to the commitment problem. Pledges tie the hands of politicians by involving voters in the enforcement process. If politicians violate a group’s pledge, even voters who disagree with the pledge will carry out a punishment. Using survey experiments, we show that the “No New Taxes” pledge commits signatories by significantly increasing the electoral cost of advocating higher taxes. We also explain how the pledge incentivizes even nonsignatories to avoid raising taxes. By deterring politicians from responding to changes in public opinion, pledges can contribute to non-representative policies.

Ezra Klein has a more detailed summary of the paper’s argument and key findings on his blog at the Washington Post, so I won’t repeat that here. Klein is to be commended (once again) for highlighting political science research, but he also gets some kudos here for zeroing in on one of the questions faced by all survey experiments (even though he doesn’t explicitly use the political science lingo): external validity. Klein writes:

But Tomz and van Houweling are presenting a world in which voters know nothing about the candidate save for the pledge. In the real world, voters know quite a lot about candidates — particularly incumbents — and so they base their votes on a multitude of factors. Someone like [Senator] Coburn, who has a strong personal connection with his constituents, might be able to survive breaking the pledge. But weaker incumbents probably don’t want to risk it. And unknown candidates who run in primaries can’t resist it. And so the pledge endures.

I suspect Klein is correct that the cost to candidates for breaking these kind of pledges is not the same in all cases. Tomz and van Houweling – as they have in previous work – keep their parties anonymous (“Senator A” and “Senator B”). So the experiment as currently designed is not going to be able get at the question Klein raises: does someone like Sen. Coburn have enough capital banked with his voters to be able to get away with breaking the pledge in a way that other legislators do not? (A nice extension of this question in a comparative context could be whether some parties in multi-party systems are better able to get away with breaking campaign promises than other parties). That being said, Tomz and van Houweling do close the paper with a strong claim that could be read as denying that Klein’s point will ever really matter (see p.30):

Our experiments suggest that signatories would almost never find it electorally optimal to break the “no new taxes” pledge [emphasis added]. Remarkably, the pledge binds even during periods of national crisis, when economic and political circumstances might tempt signatories to renege. We ran our experiment at a time when Washington was focused on the skyrocketing debt, ratings agencies were threatening to downgrade U.S. government bonds, and bi-partisan commissions were arguing that tax increases would be necessary to solve the crisis. We also ensured, in our scenarios, that new taxes would be paired with spending cuts and devoted to deficit reduction. Even in these extenuating circumstances, the pledge strongly tied the hands of politicians.

Klein does raise the issue of whether if the entire Republican party decided to defect from the pledge en mass (say as part of a hypothetical grand-bargain on deficit reduction) it might somehow provide cover to the legislators as individuals. From a game theoretic standpoint, though, we might wonder whether we would ever get to such an outcome in the world described by Tomz and van Houweling. Since the punishment from breaking the pledge can come from primary challengers, any attempt to craft such a grand bargain that broke the pledge would run up against a prisoner’s dilemma: even individual legislators who favored the grand bargain would be better off letting it pass without their vote, so as to better forestall a primary challenger in the future. This viewpoint is consistent with a final piece of anecdotal evidence offered by the authors (p.31):

Consistent with our findings, many participants in the 2011 standoff over national debt claimed that the pledge prevented Congress from reaching a compromise that included revenue increases as well as spending cuts. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) argued on the Senate floor that Republicans were “terrified to violate the infamous Grover Norquist tax pledge,” and former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) added that many Republicans in Congress felt “trapped” by the pledge.

The full paper is available here.

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Civic Engagement is a Cause of Special Interests, Not a Solution

The American public disdains interest groups. They complain that money corrupts Washington, with special interests securing policy at the expense of the public interest. As previously discussed here, Larry Lessig has a new book in a long line of popular complaints, arguing that campaign contributions buy policy influence. He ends with a familiar call for unengaged Americans to form a movement for political reform. Political science research also supports the finding that community-based engagement in civic organizations has been replaced by national self-interested organized mobilization. Even lobbyist and convicted conspirator Jack Abramoff has been reborn as a would-be reformer, arguing for more restrictive regulation and public pressure.

The idea that “the special interests” are the enemy and “the people” need to fight back is a common trope. Usually, this vague dichotomy includes two distinctions. First, the moneyed interests who can trade cash for votes face off against the citizens’ groups that take power back for the people. Second, public interest groups that mobilize on behalf of ideas compete against the array of groups motivated only by economic self-interest. During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton was chastised for disputing this dichotomy: some lobbyists represent “real Americans,” she said.

In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I find that Washington now features more than 1,600 organizations that claim to speak on behalf of public interests and ideas. These groups do not gain prominence or policymaking access by making campaign contributions or by hiring lobbyists from firms. Instead, they succeed by building reputations for representing public constituencies and becoming informed participants in policy debates. These national advocacy groups also do not trade off with local organizing; the same types of public constituencies are involved in local civic groups and national advocacy organizations.

There is no clear distinction between public groups who mobilize around ideas and those motivated by interests. First, most groups are a product of both shared ideas and interests. Second, public interest groups are just viewed as representatives of the supporters of their issue positions. Environmentalists and African-Americans are both constituencies with organized leaders, and environmental groups do not get any extra advantage for claiming to speak on behalf of the public as a whole. Third, successful mobilization around ideas is subject to the same dynamics as social group mobilization. Like social groups, some political perspectives gain more organized representation because constituencies with more political capacity hold these views.

The difficulty for democracy is that increased civic engagement would not get us out of unequal influence. Calls for more popular participation and further group organizing will reinforce the inequalities in the advocacy system (unless the least involved groups disproportionately heed the message). The differential engagement of some groups over others is the reason why interest groups represent some constituencies much better than others.

What most people want (but usually do not say) is more mobilization by the groups they support and less by the groups they oppose. That is a strategy that can work, but is difficult to achieve. Commentators like Lessig see evidence that some groups spend a lot more money to influence politics than others and they reason that divorcing money from politics will alleviate the disadvantage. Even if such a divorce were practical, however, the money may be a signal that some groups are more motivated and equipped to participate. Take away the money and you often still have one side that cares more about an issue and organizes more to do something about it.


Note: Thanks to John for hosting me as a guest blogger this week. If any readers have further comments or ideas, feel free to contact me at matt at My current research broadly covers American policy history since 1945 and the determinants of policy change. If anyone wants to read more, I always have papers in need of feedback.

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How Interest Group Mobilization Explains Media Bias

In nearly every campaign and policy debate, at least one of the sides (and often both) make the claim that the news media is biased toward the other side. As previously discussed here, some political scientists measure media bias by comparing the citations of think tanks and advocacy groups in different media outlets with mentions of the same organizations in Congress. The idea is that reporters and legislators reveal their ideology by citing liberal or conservative groups.

In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I find that the patterns of media citations of interest groups reflect the composition of the advocacy community in Washington. One side in a policy debate gets more of an airing for their views when there are more mobilized groups on that side. Both the Washington print media and the national television news tend to rely most on the largest, oldest, and broadest organizations, whether they are liberal or conservative.

How does this help explain claims of liberal media bias? There are simply many more public interest groups representing liberal issue perspectives in Washington than those speaking on behalf of conservative issue perspectives (by my count, four or five times as many). The liberal groups are also, on average, larger and older. On some issues, there is a liberal issue group but no equivalent conservative one (although some see the cacophony of specialized voices as a weakness for liberals).

The large ideological difference in the population is reflected in organizational citations in media coverage. Liberal issue groups (including environmental and consumer groups) account for one-quarter of all advocacy group mentions on the television news; the conservative equivalents account for only 3.5% of the mentions. (Groups that represent occupations, identity groups, or other issue perspectives account for the remainder).

My counts do not include corporations and their associations, which vastly outnumber public interest groups and often have conservative views. When corporate interests are included, they represent a large share of media citations in policy debates (although one comparison found advocacy groups more prominent).

To see how this works in practice, look back at a USA Today story previewing 2011. The story cites Third Way, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Environmental Working Group, and the Bipartisan Policy Center. The Groseclose/Milyo measure of media bias would compare its citations to those of members of Congress, perhaps finding it more likely to cite liberal groups.

Yet looking for differences across media and policymakers misses the larger picture: some organizations consistently gain more attention from both. I find that policymakers and reporters both amplify the voices of the same types of large, institutionalized organizations. A previous study of think tanks also found that organizational size and resources, rather than their ideology, determines their prominence.

The population of available groups is also consequential. Reporters call a cross-section of the types of groups that are accessible to them. If the organizations that they cite are indicators of media bias, the largest source of biases in coverage are differences in the relative mobilization of each constituency. Some social groups, economic interests, and issue perspectives generate more organized representation and they receive more media coverage.

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Inequality is Much Greater in Interest Groups than Elections

During election season, some groups of potential voters get more attention than others. Iowa farmers, New Hampshire veterans, and Florida space enthusiasts, for example, all received special treatment from Newt Gingrich in the 2012 Republican primaries. Beyond the state-by-state pandering, there is legitimate concern that policymakers may listen much more closely to constituencies that participate heavily in elections, such as the elderly and the rich.

In yesterday’s post, I argued that the types of groups that tend to vote at higher rates also generate more interest groups to speak on their behalf. At the individual level, we have known about unequal participation for some time. Individuals that participate more in elections also participate more in all forms of civic life. The subset of Americans that is involved in politics tends to be unrepresentative of the nation as a whole and skewed toward those of higher socio-economic status.

In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I draw a critical distinction between inequality in electoral participation versus interest group organizing. Despite unequal voter turnout across groups, elections are still a powerful tool for large groups over small groups. In the interest group system, there is no such advantage for large groups. Farmers and doctors are too small to matter in most elections, even if they voted at a 100% rate. In the advocacy system, doctors are better represented than much larger groups like other health workers and patients. Members of Congress see their constituents as members of these stakeholder groups; they respond to the organized constituents that contact them.

The U.S. does not achieve equal representation of individuals or of stakeholder groups, but elections are much closer to equality of citizens and the interest group system more closely matches equality of stakeholders. My research shows that neither larger nor smaller public groups generate more representation, just groups where the average member is civically and politically engaged. Members of Congress and the White House then hear from a surprisingly representative cast of participants in their committee hearings and deliberations. The trouble is that it is representative of the groups that have mobilized most in Washington, rather than the broader public.

In 2008, Obama described his plan for health policymaking as bringing “doctors and patients” and “workers and businesses” to the table with the drug and insurance industry. These industries would “get a seat at the table” but they would not “get to buy every chair.” We often describe inequality this way, as some groups getting more chairs at the policymaking table. Although this is a worthy concern, there are two more severe problems with the analogy. First, groups of vastly different sizes (doctors and patients) are equated as stakeholders. Most of the departure from equal representation comes in the definition of the stakeholders, not their relative weight at the table. Second, we assume that institutional groups in Washington can represent large constituencies. When Obama says “workers and businesses,” the practical meaning is that the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce will be invited to the relevant meetings.

The same types of groups tend to be advantaged in electoral and interest group participation, but the resulting bias in representation is much more significant for interest groups. We are much closer to “one person, one vote” than “one person, one lobbyist.” If government produces unequal policy results, it seems at least as likely to be driven by different levels of interest group influence than by different participation patterns in elections.

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Why Jews are Better Represented than Catholics

During the recent controversy over the Obama administration’s rules on contraception coverage in health insurance plans, representatives of American Catholics played a large role. This was a rare moment in the sun for the most prominent Catholic interest group in the U.S., the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic hospitals were also involved but there was no prominent organization of lay Catholics to voice their perspective.

This year also brought a new flare up in the perennial controversy over the power of Jewish organizations that heavily influence American foreign policy toward Israel. Political scientists have played a prominent role in critiquing these organizations, arguing that they have outsized influence and do not represent the views of Jewish Americans.

The large difference in the organized representation of these two religious groups makes for a useful comparison: why have Jews mobilized such an extensive and prominent organized leadership to speak on their behalf while Catholics are represented only by their usually-invisible official institutions? There are substantially more Jewish than Catholic interest groups in Washington. Their groups have more political staff and lobbyists. They appear in news coverage several times more often and they are much more involved in every policymaking venue with measurable participation.

In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I find that Jews look like a lot of other groups in the American public with high levels of organized representation, such as scientists, lawyers, and gun owners. Catholics, meanwhile, look a lot like groups with low levels of organized representation, like college students and manufacturing workers. The most obvious difference is the socio-economic status of the average member of each group, but there are other consequential distinctions. On average, Jews pay much more attention to the news, are involved in more community groups, and vote at a rate almost 17% higher than Catholics. My argument is that some groups have much more civic and political capacity than others, and it shows up in the kind of organized leadership that they build.

The alternative, mainstream view is that foreign policy opinions on Israel drive Jews to high levels of participation, but this ignores several issues. First, it is not just the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J-Street that are prominent Jewish organizations; the list would include the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federations, B’nai B’rith, and women’s groups. Second, there is a sociological literature that explains why American Jews are disproportionately involved in all kinds of high-status occupations and forms of social organization, many of which have little to do with politics. Third, the patterns of disproportionate Jewish participation in social and political life in the U.S. long pre-date the state of Israel.

Scholars have not come to consensus on why Jews are much more socially and politically engaged than other groups, but the explanation may not have much to do with policy. Likewise, studies of American Catholics reveal that they rely on Church institutions for political engagement and are less likely to see their faith as a basis for independent social and political organization.

The history of Jewish and Catholic organizations may help explain their relative mobilization, but we should not miss the forest for the trees: some social groups are much better represented than others. The well-represented groups tend to share similar traits that promote mobilization. The debate over whether these leaderships faithfully represent the views of their constituents is worth having. In most cases, they do not. Catholics are more moderate on contraception than their organized leaders and Jews are more moderate on foreign policy than their leaders. The organized leadership of each group, however, still draws from the strength of its constituency. The differential representation of Jews over Catholics is part of a broader story of democratic organizing: interest groups represent some types of people much better than others.

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The Culture Wars Go Global

Clifford Bob has a new book out this week called The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics. The book documents the influence of right-wing transnational advocacy networks: a group that has been highly influential yet under the radar in most academic studies. Here’s what Professor Bob has to say about the book’s core argument:

International activism is no longer the preserve of the left, if it ever was.  More specifically, the book focuses on conflicts over gay rights and gun rights at the UN and in Brazil, Sweden, and Romania—as well as the ways in which these overseas conflicts are used in the American culture wars.  There are current conflicts over gay rights at the UN Human Rights Council (though not well-known) and … in African countries such as Uganda. Similarly, battles over the Arms Trade Treaty continue at the UN, though they are again not heavily reported.

This book comes at a time when many people have been preoccupied with humanitarian causes, like Kony 2012, or other campaigns with fairly progressive aims. Bob reminds us that global human rights, social justice, and gun control campaigns have determined opponents who use a variety of tactics to challenge their foes and advance more conservative policy agendas. In fact, they are often extremely effective in pressing for social and political reforms in foreign counties.

Check out the book for lots of examples.

For a 20% discount through Cambridge University Press, click here (U.S. only) or here (outside the U.S.).


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Gauging the Influence of Public Interest Groups

A Monkey Cage reader and long-time affiliate of Washington public interest groups asks: Do public interest groups influence policy decisions?  For an answer, I asked two political scientists who study interest groups: Dara Strolovich, the author of Affirmative Advocacy, and Matt Grossmann, the author of the forthcoming Not So Special Interests.  Here is their post:

Categorizing groups as representing the “public interest” is tricky.  Even among groups typically considered “public interest groups,” a few relatively large and well-established organizations account for the bulk of opportunities for influence, such as media appearances and committee testimony. And these groups may only represent the interests of their most advantaged constituencies, ignoring the issue concerns of disadvantaged subgroups of their constituencies. “Public interest groups,” in other words, represent small portions of the public.

The answer to the reader’s question depends even more on our standard for influence. If influence means changing the votes of legislators or whether bills are signed into law, interest groups appear to have little influence. Some studies of the influence of lobbying on congressional votes have found no influence and others have found substantial influence but only on a few specific votes. In general, it is hard for groups to bring about changes in the law.  Whoever favors the status quo over any change has a tremendous advantage. Political action committee (PAC) contributions show even less evidence of influence. PACs influence voting on only non-ideological issues. That said, even if they do not generally change legislators’ votes, interest groups do lead legislators to pay attention to issues that they might otherwise fail to address and they can influence the content of policy by drafting model legislation or regulations.

If we interpret policy influence more broadly, public interest groups may be able to compete better with business interests than is commonly assumed. Business and professional associations vastly outnumber public interest groups, but the public interest community has grown at a faster rate. Public interest groups represent 26% of major interest group participants in Washington.  And even though they spend much less money on lobbying than do corporate interests, such spending does not predict which side wins a lobbying debate. In fact, policy historians partially credit public interest groups with one-third of all significant domestic policy enactments since 1945.

What about when public interest groups face business groups in head-to-head competition?

What about the long term? Public interest policies are often weakened by future congresses or administrative agency decisions because more specialized interest groups fight reform over extended periods. Likewise policy changes may be ineffective; the NAACP’s efforts to use the courts to end segregation did not lead to more black schoolchildren attending integrated schools, in spite of the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

To apply this debate to a current example, think about the anti-tax pledge from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) signed by so many first-year members of Congress. Has ATR influenced policy? First, evaluating causality is hard: most of the people who signed the pledge already opposed tax increases and most votes against taxes are driven by ideology and partisanship, rather than adherence to the pledge. Second, the pledge generally favors the status quo and that comes with quite an advantage. Nevertheless, political science suggests that ATR could influence which issues Congress addresses and the terms of the tax reform debate in the media. ATR is unlikely to singlehandedly affect final votes on any legislation, but, in tandem with many other factors, it could change how the debate over tax policy develops. Many years from now, we might conclude that the group was part of an important movement that prevented tax increases, at least for a while.

Strolovich and Grossmann also recommend these sources for further reading:

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