The Iron Triangle: Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of the Iron…
  • 0:48 Theory & Examples
  • 3:10 Problems with the Iron…
  • 3:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

The iron triangle is a unique relationship between bureaucracy, congressmen, and lobbyists that results in the mutual benefit of all three of them. We examine how an iron triangle works and then consider some problems that might arise from an iron triangle.

Definition of the Iron Triangle

Orchid bees have an interesting relationship with orchids. These bees use the orchids' special fragrances to make pheromones, which they then use to communicate with each other. But in the process, orchid bees help the flowers flourish by pollinating the female parts of other orchids. In nature, when two types of living creatures benefit each other in this way, they create a symbiotic relationship.

The world of politics has its own version of this symbiotic relationship. It's called the iron triangle. The iron triangle is a mutually beneficial, three-way relationship between Congress, government bureaucrats, and special interest lobby groups. Each group does some action that will help the other group, creating a lasting and unbreakable bond between the three.

Theory & Examples

To understand the iron triangle, you've got to put yourself in the shoes of each of the actors. First, take, for example, a bureaucrat in the Department of Energy, a congressman on the Energy Committee, and a lobbyist from a major oil company, like Exxon Mobil. The bureaucrat's goal is to maintain his department's funding and thus his job. The congressman's goal is to gain re-election. The lobbyist's goal is to represent his company and get legislative bills of interest to his company passed. According to the iron triangle theory, all three will work together so that all three can achieve their goals. It all comes to three relationships among the three groups.

First, there is the relationship between the member of Congress and the bureaucrat. The bureaucrat knows that the funding for his job depends on how much money Congress gives the Department of Energy. So, the bureaucrat has an incentive to make the legislators on the Energy Committee happy. Thus, he might funnel Department of Energy money to a pork-barrel project of a major committee member to make that member of Congress happy. (Pork-barrel projects generally provide benefits to a specific locale, like the congressman's district). From the perspective of the congressman, he knows that in exchange for the bureaucrat funneling money towards his pork-barrel project, he must show legislative support for the bureaucrat's department. Thus, the congressman scratches the bureaucrat's back, and the bureaucrat scratches the congressman's back.

The second relationship is between the congressman and the lobbyist. Here, the congressman realizes that he will need help in his re-election for the coming year. That is where he might pledge support for programs that help companies like Exxon Mobil in exchange for a contribution to his re-election fund from Exxon Mobil. Thus, the lobbyist scratches the congressman's back, and the congressman scratches the lobbyist's back.

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