IN recent weeks both houses of Congress have approved clean-air bills. The Senate has narrowly voted to ban assault rifles. And the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee began this year's assault on tobacco interests by proposing to authorize $110 million to publicize negative health effects of tobacco. In all three cases the votes reflect building public sentiment. But at one time all three actions would have been unthinkable: Congress would have turned them down, and powerful interest groups would have been credited with the key influence.
Why the difference now?
Because the change is American democracy in action. The public has changed its collective thinking, interest groups that reflect this change have sprung up or been strengthened, and Congress has been responsive.
``There are countervaling powers in American politics that occasionally reach sufficient strength'' to overcome long-powerful lobbies, says Thomas Mann, director of government studies at the Brookings Institution.
Those forces ``are really the diffuse public, who is mobilizing,'' he says. ``Every once in a while the pressure builds'' on an issue, ``the public becomes mobilized, and it's sufficient to overcome the organized interests.'' Example: The environmental movement. ``It has really come of age,'' Mr. Mann says, ``and is an enormous force in American politics.''
``One of the features of American democracy is organized groups. It always has been,'' says Alice Rivlin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office now with the Brookings Institution. ``But the new feature is that in recent years there has been the emergence of new issues - environment, gun control, to mention two.'' Thus strong organized groups now exist on what used to be the weaker side, she adds.
That has brought about genuine legislative tussles on subjects that once were cut-and-dried. ``In the last few years we've seen more competition'' on many issues before Congress, says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and President Studies at American University. ``More people are opposing positions that were taken by specific economic interests in the past.''
As a result there is now ``no dominant interest in most policy areas,'' Professor Thurber says. One reason is the Reagan legacy of fiscal austerity, ``that creates more competition among interest groups for limited amounts of money.''
The shifting relative strength of lobbies is part of the reason for changing congressional positions over the years on tobacco, environment, and other issues, says Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
But what underlies this change is a factor that plays a larger role in causing Congress to be responsive, Mr. Ornstein adds: Changes in what the public thinks and wants. ``What we've seen more than anything else is that the whole public sense has changed'' on several issues, he says. ``So much of journalism thinks you win or lose [congressional votes] because of the strength of the lobbies. But you win or lose often because of the public mood or different evidence.''
It may be trite to say that Congress is a representative body, says former Sen. Charles Mathias, ``but it's also true. When members sense changes in public attitudes, these are very quickly reflected'' in the way Congress votes.
``If a lobbying group doesn't understand or respond to the change in public climate, it's going to find itself outside of the mainstream'' and susceptible to being quickly weakened, says Ornstein. The choice: Adjust tactics or be defied.
Far and away the biggest change in lobby group strength in recent years has been the growth of influence of environmentalists, says Jonathan Nagler, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University.
Another major change is in the public's attitude toward smoking. ``It's obvious ... that the attitude of the people and the Congress has changed'' with the tide running against tobacco, says House Republican leader Robert Michel of Illinois. It is a change that has been building over 25 years, since then-Surgeon General Luther Terry first fingered smoking as a health hazard.
That is why government subsidies to tobacco farmers ``have taken a terrible hit over the last few years, because more people see the consumption of tobacco as harmful to their health,'' says Nelson Polsby, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Even though recent congressional votes spell actual or potential trouble for industry interests on clean air, tobacco interests, and the National Rifle Association, ``none of them suggests that lobbies have gotten weaker,'' Professor Nagler says. ``They suggest what the public wants has changed. ... It's not like the lobbyists are taking a beating.'' It's just that they're in a tougher fight than before.