The term "iron triangle" is a term used to describe the dynamics of policy-making between Congress, special interest groups, and governmental agencies. The interrelationship between these three factions can create a self-sufficient (and sometimes corrupt) subgovernmental situations in which American citizens' best interests are ignored in favor of receiving special favors and regulation changes for passing particular legislation.
Elements of the Iron Triangle
Special Interest Groups
Special interest groups are frequently a key element in the iron triangle since they can create a governmental situation in which their lobbyists have an undue influence on government.
Here are a few iron triangle examples:
The Sierra Club can lobby to have its goals met, including blocking the Keystone Pipeline and passing Cap and Trade to fight global warming. Government agencies and Congress may choose to respond to the needs of the Sierra Club, even if it puts them at odds with most voters on an issue such as the Keystone Pipeline.
The NRA can lobby to block new gun control measures. This can become an iron triangle issue if politicians respond to the NRA lobbyists and block an initiative such as universal background checks, even if the initiative is supported by most voters.
The food industry can lobby to maintain the benefits for farmers and food processors from agricultural subsidies, even if the cost of food increases.
Large defense contractors can work with Defense Department officials to convince them to use their congressional funding to order products, supplies and manpower from a specific defense contractor even if the cost is significantly higher than market prices.
The AARP can lobby to prevent any cuts or changes in Social Security or Medicare. Even if it would be in the best longterm interest of the public for these programs to be reformed so they are more sustainable, politicians may listen to the special interests represented by the AARP.
The Christian Coalition can lobby for laws that restrict abortion. This becomes an iron triangle situation if these laws are passed, even though most of the public would prefer fewer restrictions.
Key Special Interest Groups
American Civil Liberties Union
AFL/CIO - American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizatons
American Israel Public Affairs Committee
Americans for Democratic Action
AARP - American Association for Retired Persons
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State
Amnesty International USA
The Christian Coalition
The Concord Coalition
Democratic Leadership Council
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
The Electronic Policy Network
Family Research Council
The Federalist Society
The Feminist Majority
Human Rights Campaign
The Interfaith Alliance
The John Birch Society
The Militia Watchdog
National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League
NAACP - National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
National Committee for an Effective Congress
National Organization for Women
National Republican Congressional Committee
National Republican Senatorial Committee
National Rifle Association
National Right to Life Committee
People for the American Way
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
The Right Side of the Web
The Sierra Club
Southern Poverty Law Center
Veterans of Foreign Wars
U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Another corner of the iron triangle is Congress. Congress exchanges "friendly legislation" to interest groups as well as bureaucrats and governmental agencies in order to get their support in elections. As a result:
Bureaucrats and agencies receive less oversight and gain the ability to more freely execute policy.
Special interest groups, bureaucrats and agencies receive special favors and lowered regulation.
Individuals within Congress often forge these alliances with special interest groups and bureaucrats as a source of information. They select the groups they align with based on the subject matters discussed in their assigned committees.
For example, a congressperson from the Midwest who is a member of the Agriculture committee in the House of Representatives may rely on a lobbyist from the ethanol industry to provide industry stats and facts about the benefits of using corn for ethanol production. As long as the congressperson works towards policies that are beneficial to ethanol production, the lobbyist may, in turn, be very influential in promoting the congressperson as an ally to the corn farmers. This could raise the congressperson's chances of reelection.
Committees in the House of Representatives
Education and the Workforce
Energy and Commerce
Intelligence (Permanent Select)
Oversight and Government Reform
Science, Space, and Technology
Transportation and Infrastructure
Ways and Means
Committees in the Senate
Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Commerce, Science and Transportation
Energy and Natural Resources
Environment and Public Works
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Rules and Administration
Small Business and Entrepreneurship
Joint committees of the House and Senate
Bureaucracies and Government Agencies
The third side of the iron triangle are the government bureaucracies and agencies that function as the implementation arm of policies and procedures passed by Congress. Congress is their key source of funding. This synergistic effect can lead to decisions being implemented that may be in the favor of Congress or the agency, but not in the best interests of the citizens.
For example, Amtrak can convince Congress to reduce some of the regulations on train safety as a way to cut costs, even though the changes could be detrimental to the future safety of the train riders.
Key Bureacracies and Government Agencies
Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Bureau
American Battle Monuments Commission
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
Appalachian Regional Commission
Architect of the Capitol
Archives (National Archives and Records Administration)
The iron triangle that these three groups (special interest groups, Congress and government bureaucracies and agencies) has created is strong because of their reliance on each other to achieve their own agendas. Often, the consequence of this relationship is legislation that overspends and results in the waste of taxpayer dollars and the ignorance of needs of citizens.