The history of these organizations reflects the history of the American political system and the American military. The late nineteenth century saw the first foundings of military professional and political organizations. For example, the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) was formed in 1878 for “practical reform which would make the Militia a more effective instrument … of National Defense.” Today, some of these organizations are narrowly professional; others have evolved into politically active organizations.
The history of two organizations of this era, the Navy League and the Marine Corps Association, however, illustrates the difficulty of separating the professional from the political. The Navy League, sponsored by Theodore Roosevelt, was founded in 1902, “not to formulate specific needs for Navy … but rather to educate the people on the importance of sea power.” Education about the navy was in fact education about Theodore Roosevelt's expansionist policy. The Marine Corps Association was founded in 1911, born in the heat of politics as a response to an effort to reduce the role of the Marine Corps. It succeeded in sustaining the Corps in part because of the political connections of its members.
Several organizations were founded after World War I, including the Reserve Officers Association (ROA) and the Fleet Reserve Association. There was a second surge of foundings between 1946 and 1955; many of these were industrial organizations, like the American Defense Preparedness Association. Organizations founded in the 1960s through the 1980s were more specialized (the Army Warrant Officers Association) or focused on enlisted members and families (the Non‐Commissioned Officers Association and the National Military Family Association). Today, fifty to sixty organizations claim to represent the views of military members or their families.
Lobbying organizations fall into three main types. First are the industry‐based educational associations, such as Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA, with 25,000 individual members and 12,000 corporate sponsors), which operate under sections of the Internal Revenue Code that restrict explicit lobbying and political activity. They do not employ registered lobbyists or undertake explicit political efforts. They do sponsor educational activities on general issues, such as the health of the military's industrial base, and develop policy agendas. Their budgets may be substantial, in the $1–$7 million range.
Other organizations, such as The Retired Officers Association (TROA) and the National Association for Uniformed Services (NAUS), specialize in personnel issues and have memberships of 100,000 or more; ROA is the largest at 400,000, with an $11 million annual budget. These organizations may employ registered lobbyists, and NAUS has its own political action committee, a rarity. To sustain their membership base, they feature extensive membership packages ranging from credit cards to health insurance.
The third major type is the “peak organization,” as in the AUSA and the Navy League. Though they receive Department of Defense (DoD) support for annual meetings, they are independent organizations, have corporate members and individual memberships of 50,000–170,000 people, and budgets of $3.5–$13 million. Several have registered lobbyists, and all undertake extensive political activity, in the broadest sense. The ROA, for example, publishes a legislative agenda and organizes “meet your congressman” breakfasts.
All of these organizations monitor governmental activity, seek to shape public opinion, and intervene in the policy process. They are not direct channels of campaign contributions. Rather, they gain influence either through their voting strength (military personnel groups represent 3.75 million voters) or personal contacts (most organizations employ veterans from the executive branch or Capitol Hill).
How much impact do these organizations have? Personnel issues have shown where they are most influential. Since the 1970s, the organizations have won improvements in pay and personnel support. They have been relatively effective, though not triumphant, in mitigating efforts to reduce military and retiree benefits. They also have had impact on actions within the DoD. For example, the DoD comptroller once got 7,000 letters prompted by lobbying groups when he proposed cutting commissary benefits; he reversed his course.
These organizations serve a classic political function: the representation of citizens before their government. Though they frequently support articulated DoD positions, they are not mere mouthpieces. For example, NGAUS and ROA have provided active voices for the reserve components, sometimes in quiet opposition to DoD and occasionally in active battle with DoD and each other. Study of the “losses” of these organizations is also instructive. The Air Force Association undertook an effort to fund additional B‐2 bombers. This effort was contrary to DoD policy, but featured several recently retired generals pressing the case. The effort died; absent administration support, it was not able to develop congressional support. Lobbying organizations have also failed in the effort to gain greater access to the military commissary system for reservists.
Some of the issues that activate these organizations have nothing to do with pay or procurement. The Air Force Association started the controversy in 1995 over the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay exhibit. The association's membership was very active in the campaign to change the exhibit, in coalition with veterans' groups. For the Air Force Sergeants' Association, one of the biggest nonbenefits issues has been its opposition to gays in the military. Lobbying organizations have also been active at the state level: the California department of the ROA has been an opponent of efforts to remove ROTC from state colleges.
Military lobbying groups have a long history. Though their policy positions differ from the Sierra Club, say, they perform a similar function and use similar techniques. But declining defense budgets, aging memberships, smaller armed forces, and the decline in military experience in Congress all signal a potential for more limited effectiveness.
[See also Families, Military; Gay Men and Lesbians in the Military; Veterans Administration.]
Gordon Adams , The Politics of Defense Contracting: The Iron Triangle, 1982.
John T. Carlton and and John F. Slinkman , The ROA Story: A History of the Reserve Officers Association of the United States, 1982.
Bruce C. Wolpe and and Bertram J. Levine , Lobbying Congress: How the System Works, 1990; 2nd ed., 1996.
Jack L. Walker , Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions and Social Movements, 1991.
Ronald J. Hrebenar , Interest Group Politics in America, 3rd ed., 1997.
Frank R. Baumgartner and and Beth L. Leech , Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science, 1998.
William Paul Brown , Groups, Interests and U.S. Public Policy, 1998.