In Texas politics, one of the most important things to understand is the iron triangle. The iron triangle figuratively symbolizes the relationship between interest groups, the bureaucracy, and legislative committees. Each of the three entities is at a corner of the triangle. It is regarded as an accurate representation of the way in which many routine policy decisions are made. The interest group is at the top, the bureaucracy is at the bottom left, and the legislative committee is at the bottom right. Starting at the interest group and going clockwise, the interest group provides the bureaucracy with information and support for agency budget.
The bureaucracy provides the legislative committee with information. The legislative committee provides the interest group with legislation. Going counter-clockwise, the interest group provides the legislative committee with campaign contributions and information. The legislative committee provides the bureaucracy with legislation and budget support. The bureaucracy provides the interest group with rules and regulations. An example is the interest group being from the oil and gas industry, the bureaucracy is the railroad commission, and any committee.
The lobbyists from the oil and gas industry send campaign contributions and information to the committee. Information could be about anything from supply and demand to turnover rates. The committee sends legislation and budget support to the commission, which are money and rules on how to regulate the oil and gas industry. The rules and regulations are then sent up to the interest group from the industry. The other way, the industry lobbyists send information and support to the commission, which sends the information to the committee, which then sends legislation to the industry.
The process of co-optation is closely related to this iron triangle. Co-optation is defined as the transition from guardian of the public interest to defenders of private interests. This happens for three reasons. First, once a regulatory agency is established, the public tends to lose interest.
Second, the regulators tend to come from the industry being regulated, bringing with them the industry's perspective and bias as opposed to the public interest. Third, regulators have personal relationships with representatives from the industry who are generous to members of the agency. Basically, the regulatory agencies come to represent the interest of the industry they were created to control as opposed to the public interest. The part of the iron triangle where this occurs is where the interest group sends the agency information and support. The information is passed to the committee. The committee then sends favorable legislation to the interest group's industry.
This favorable legislation is the outcome of the process of co-optation. The iron triangle is not a subversion of democracy, but co-optation is. The iron triangle works well in theory. As long as the information is unbiased, legislation will still be passed that serves the public good. As long as the agency regulates the industry with strict standards, that serves the public good. As long as the interest group sends unbiased information, and legal contributions, that serves the public good.
However, if the agency and the interest group are working together to help the industry, that does not serve the public good and it is clearly co-optation. Co-optation is clearly a subversion of democracy because it does not serve the public good. The only way to improve the situation of co-optation would be to have unbiased regulators with strict standards, as well as unbiased information. That would serve the public good..