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Lesson 8: Legislators and Representation - Executive, Federal and Interest Group Relations

The purpose of Lesson 8 is to provide students with an overview of the interaction between the Legislature and other governmental institutions or organizations that seek to influence the policymaking process. The lesson explores the relationship between the state legislature and two external government institutions: the state executive branch and the federal government. The lesson also explores the role and interaction of lobbyists and interest groups within the state legislative process.

The Relationship Between the State Legislature and the Executive Branch

Every two years in Nebraska, during the month of November, citizens gather at their local polling places to cast their votes for state legislators and other public officials. Every four years, Nebraska voters elect the state's governor. As discussed in Lessons 4 and 6, the governor has two important roles in the legislative process in Nebraska. He or she issues recommendations about the state's budget and has the duty of signing or vetoing legislation. In his duties as leader of the state's executive branch, the governor has additional duties that bring him or her in contact with legislators and the legislative process.

In the United States, governors often serve as an agenda setter for public policy in their states. This means that they create a set of policy goals, bringing public and media attention to these issues. A governor, for example, may have a policy goal relating to education, such as higher grades for the state's students. By announcing that this issue is on his or her agenda, the governor makes citizens and the press aware of the issue. Since legislators are the officials primarily involved in passing laws for the state, the governor must work together with the Legislature to ensure that his or her policy agenda is set into law.

As leader of the executive branch, the governor also oversees all of the departments and agencies that make up the executive branch. The functions of these agencies, generally, is to carry out the laws made by the legislative branch. For example, if the Legislature was to make a new law regarding the age at which a young person can receive a driver's license, the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles - often called the "DMV" - would be responsible for carrying out that law. So, in order for you to receive a driver's license, you would need to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles and follow the legislative rules have been set out for driver's license testing. This department - along with the State Department of Education, Department of Roads, and many others - is a part of the executive branch.

Since it is the responsibility of these departments to carry out the laws written by legislators, the governor remains in contact with department leaders and legislators to make sure that the laws are being carried out. He may also contact legislators when departments find a need for additional laws or if changes to law are needed. In contrast, legislators have oversight of executive departments. This means that the Legislature checks the activities of the departments to make sure that they follow the state's laws in a way that is fair for all of Nebrask's citizens.

Just as there are interactions between the governor and legislators in Nebraska, there are also interactions between Nebraska's legislators and policymakers in Washington, D.C., where the country's main federal government offices are located. Since policies enacted by Congress will affect all the people of the United States, lawmakers in Washington are often in contact with lawmakers in individual states like Nebraska so that they can get feedback about these policies. State legislators interested in a particular policy area, like agriculture, for example, may contact federal legislators for information on current policies or laws that are being developed.

The interaction between state and federal legislatures can occur in other ways, as well. The federal government sometimes passes bills referred to as mandates, which set a federal policy or regulation that must be followed by citizens in each state. These pieces of legislation can be controversial, as they require state legislatures to enact legislation or pay for programs that have been approved by federal, but not state, legislators. For example, Congress could mandate that each state create a driver education program in national highway safety and require each person who wants to get a driver's license to pass this program. Although it is the federal government that is requiring that the programs be created, the states would be left to pay for the programs on their own. Since the U.S. Constitution reserves some powers for the states, some people feel that federal mandates are unfair.


Interviewee: The late U.S. Sen. J. James Exon

"Outside the Legislature: Part 1" explores the interactions between state legislators and the state executive branch, and state legislatures and the federal government.

The late U.S. Sen. J. James Exon discuss the relationship between the executive and legislative branch in Nebraska.

Critical Thinking Exercise

  • How many agencies and departments exist in Nebraska's executive branch?
  • How many departments exist in the executive branch of the federal government?
  • Take a guess and then visit an online list of Nebraska and federal departments to check your answer.
The Relationship Between the State Legislature and Interest Group

In previous lessons, you learned that the system of representative democracy found in the United States is based on principles such as majoritarianism and federalism. A third principle, known as pluralism, suggests that the policy process is most representative of society's needs when interest groups are active. These groups represent the needs of a diverse range of citizen interests and, when in competition with one another, can create a balance within government. According to the theory of pluralism, the public policy that results from this competition is reflective of the needs of the diverse population that sponsors these groups.

What exactly is an interest group? Simply put, an interest group is an association or organization of people interested in a common public policy goal. For example, teachers in Nebraska are often members of the Nebraska State Education Association, which works on particular education-related issues, whereas senior citizens may become members of the American Association of Retired Persons, which often deals with issues of retirement benefits and medical insurance for the elderly. The individuals who join these groups do so because they are interested in the policy issues and/or because there are benefits provided to members, such as financial discounts on services. There are thousands of interest groups in the nation covering thousands of different issues and, consequently, the interests of large numbers of Americans.

In order to achieve their public policy goal, which could be anything as specific as the passage of a particular bill or as general as a reduction in pollution, interest groups engage in a number of activities. First, they may monitor issues. They follow the activities of state and national legislatures, agencies and other relevant organizations to find out what steps are being taken with regard to their issues. Second, they may suggest legislation to move public policy in a particular direction. Although only legislators can introduce bills, interest groups can help senators who are concerned about the issue research and draft legislation.

Finally, interest groups can work to support or oppose a piece of legislation. Interest groups - as well as businesses, organizations and associations - often employ lobbyists, individuals who communicate with public officials in order to achieve the group's public policy goal. If a bill seems to be helpful to their public policy goals, a lobbyist may recommend to a legislator that he or she vote for the bill. Otherwise, a lobbyist may work to inform legislators about the negative effects a bill may have on the individuals and organizations he or she represents. Providing information is one of the most important roles that lobbyists play in the political sphere.

The role of lobbyists and interest groups can be a controversial political issue. Some individuals fear that interest groups have too much influence over the policymaking process, while others argue that interest groups provide useful information to lawmakers. As the number of interest groups across the states continues to grow and public policy issues become increasingly complex, citizens will no doubt continue to debate the impact of these organizations.


Interviewees: Barry Kennedy, Karen Kilgarin, Walt Radcliffe

"Outside the Legislature: Part 2" explores the impact and role of lobbyists and interest groups in Nebraska and in representative democracies in general.

Panelists discuss the role of interest groups in our representative democracy.

Critical Thinking Exercise

Millions of citizens in the United States belong to associations that lobby on behalf of particular issues.

  • If you were to form an interest group with some of your friends, what public policy issue would you be most interested in?
  • What would be your goal?
  • How would you go about reaching your policy goal?
What Can I Do?

Organizations like interest groups can help ensure that your concerns are represented to members of the Legislature. Find an organization that interests you - whether a club at school or a national associatio - and become a member!