How Lobbying Works


American flags fly at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in silent protest against the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy prohibiting openly gay soldiers in the U.S. military. The protest was organized in 2007 by several gay rights lobbying groups.
American flags fly at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in silent protest against the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy prohibiting openly gay soldiers in the U.S. military. The protest was organized in 2007 by several gay rights lobbying groups.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 1869, Washington D.C. newspaper correspondent Emily Edson Briggs, one of the first women to be allowed in the congressional press gallery, wrote a column titled, "The Dragons of the Lobby." Her opening sentence reads:

"Winding in and out through the long, devious basement passage, crawling through the corridors, trailing its slimy length from gallery to committee room, at last it lies stretched at full length on the floor of Congress - this dazzling reptile, this huge, scaly serpent of the lobby" [source: Briggs].

More than 140 years later, the public perception of lobbying and lobbyists is largely unchanged in America. Thanks to unscrupulous figures like Jack Abramoff, who admitted spending $1 million a year on tickets to sporting events and concerts for congressmen and their staffers, we equate the word "lobbyist" with corruption [source: Stahl]. On the surface, there appears to be a simple solution to the corrupting influence of lobbyists: make lobbying illegal. But not only would that be disastrous for the American political and legislative process, it would also be unconstitutional.

The First Amendment of the Constitution enshrines the "right of the people... to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Lobbying is one of the means by which "the people" -- as represented by individuals, corporations, nonprofit organizations, professional associations and other entities -- "petition" elected officials to take up their cause. The oil lobby wants Congress to loosen regulations on offshore drilling. The pharmaceutical lobby wants stricter intellectual property laws to protect its patents. The telecommunications lobby wants to widen the wireless spectrum. The social justice lobby wants more funding for homeless shelters and unemployed worker training programs.

Lobbying, we often hear, is the favored tactic of "special interest" groups. In truth, explained the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, every American belongs to a multitude of special interest groups. We're defined by our gender, age, religious affiliation, location, educational background and employment, and all of those associations give us a "special interest" in the actions of our elected officials [source: Byrd].

The complexity of the legislative process makes lobbying and lobbyists essential to the function of government. Congressmen and their staffs don't have the knowledge or the time to become experts on every single issue of concern to the American people. Lobbyists, as then-Senator John F. Kennedy wrote in 1956, "are in many cases expert technicians capable of examining complex and difficult subjects in a clear, understandable fashion" [source: Meyers & Associates]. A seasoned lobbyist not only educates elected officials on the issues, but helps draft legislation, solicit "aye" votes for bills in both houses of Congress, and makes sure the president has a fresh new pen to sign the bill into law.

This all sounds great until you bring up the issue of money. There is no getting around the fact that lobbyists are paid advocates. And well paid: Total spending on lobbyists surpassed $3.3 billion in 2011, triple the total in 1998 [source: Grier]. And there is no question that the biggest spenders on lobbying are corporations and big industry, lending outsized influence to business interests over the concerns of average Americans. The influence of money also means that some lobbying tactics straddle the line between unethical and simply illegal.

In this article, we will shine light on the "dark art" of lobbying by explaining who lobbyists are and what exactly they do for a living. Our exploration starts with a brief history of government lobbying in America, which began when the nation's capital was still in Philadelphia.

History of Lobbying in America

First, let's dispel the rumors about the alleged origin of the word "lobbying." There are numerous sources and articles that identify the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. as the original "lobby." According to legend, President Ulysses S. Grant would retire to the hotel's lobby in the late 1860s for a sip of brandy and a cigar only to be hounded by hordes of petitioners whom the gruff Civil War general referred to as "those damn lobbyists" [source: We Love DC]. While Grant and other American politicians may have helped popularize the term, the earliest uses of "lobby" came from England in the 1640s, referring to the lobbies in the House of Commons, where the public could directly petition its representatives [source: Hansen].

Lobbyists have been a fixture in American politics since the very first session of Congress. Tariff bills were the major focus of early lobbying efforts. In 1789, Pennsylvania senator William Maclay described New York City merchants delaying the passage of a tariff bill by plying congressmen with "treats, dinners [and] attentions" [source: Byrd].

Corporate interests have always imposed their will on Congress through aggressive lobbying. In the earliest decades of the American experiment, it was the Bank of the United States that carried elected officials in its deep pockets. In a direct conflict of interest, several sitting congressmen sat on the board of the private bank, receiving steady paychecks from the institution they wrote legislation to support [source: Byrd]. Senator Byrd reads from a letter that the famed Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster sent to the Bank of the United States inquiring about his "retainer":

"Since I arrived here, I have had an application to be concerned, professionally, against the Bank, which I have declined, of course, although I believe my retainer has not been renewed, or refreshed, as usual. If it be wished that my relation to the Bank should be continued, it may be well to send me the usual retainer."

The darkest days of lobbying came during America's "Gilded Age," the period from the end of the Civil War until the close of the 19th century, when wealthy industrialists and huge new corporations ruled the American economic and political landscape.

The railroad lobby is a prime example from that period. The truth is that the transcontinental railroad could never have been built without huge subsidies and land grants from the federal government [source: White]. There was very little interest from private investors to support such an ambitious and financially uncertain project [source: Surowiecki]. It took a huge scandal, known as the Credit Mobilier affair, to expose the widespread bribes and corrupt tactics employed by the railroad lobby to buy the political favors of congressmen. Sadly, the transcontinental railroad, which should have been a symbol of American ingenuity, was the result of corporate fat cats and corrupt politicians making themselves rich on the backs of the American taxpayer.

The self-proclaimed "King of the Lobby" from the Gilded Age was Sam Ward, who threw the most lavish parties on Capitol Hill, where congressional committee members dined on the best food in the city accompanied by beautiful women and thrilling conversation. A brilliant chef, Ward even opened a private restaurant exclusively for the D.C. political elite. His famous motto was that the shortest distance between a pending bill and a congressman's "aye" was through his stomach [source: Jacob]. Ward was suspected of large-scale bribery, but never convicted of any crime.

Now we'll jump from the excesses of the 19th century to the modern lobbying machine. First, who exactly is a lobbyist?

Who Are Lobbyists?

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C., which has seen its share of lobbyists.
The U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C., which has seen its share of lobbyists.
Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

In American politics, "lobbyist" has always been a dirty word. During the Republican primary campaign of 2012, Newt Gingrich fervently denied that his Capitol Hill consulting work qualified him as a lobbyist [source: Schlesinger]. Since 1876, Congress has required all professional lobbyists to register with the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. But since most D.C. insiders will go to great lengths to avoid being branded with the scarlet "L," the government has had to impose a strict definition of who is and who isn't a lobbyist.

According to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, and amendments made by the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, a professional lobbyist is someone who:

  1. Is paid by a client
  2. Whose services include more than one lobbying "contact" (an elected official or members of their staff)
  3. Whose lobbying activities constitute 20 percent or more of his time on behalf of that client during any three-month period [source: Office of the Clerk]

By that definition, there were 12,655 registered lobbyists in 2011, down from as high as 14,840 in 2007 [source: Center for Responsive Politics]. But that number leaves out folks like former Speaker of the House Gingrich, who leverages his network of political influence on behalf of clients who pay his health care consulting firm $200,000 to become "members," not clients [source: McIntire].

Gingrich is far from alone. In fact, the list of registered and unregistered lobbyists on Capitol Hill includes a large number of former elected officials and their staffers. In D.C., it's called the "revolving door" -- elected officials leaving the public service and going directly into lobbying. The New York Times counts more than 400 former legislators who have worked as lobbyists in the past decade [source: The New York Times]. Former politicians make effective lobbyists because of their personal contacts in the government and their expertise on key legislative issues.

As the legal definition suggests, lobbyists are paid by clients to meet with lawmakers and push the client's political agenda. Despite their bad reputation, lobbyists are not exclusively employed by big business. Every large organization has lobbyists roaming the halls of Capitol Hill, including Greenpeace, Catholic nuns and the Girl Scouts of America [source: Cook].

That said, not every organization has the same lobbying budget. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the following organizations have spent the most money on lobbying efforts from 1998 to 2012:

  1. U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($857 million)
  2. American Medical Association ($269 million)
  3. General Electric ($268 million)
  4. Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America ($219 million)
  5. American Hospital Association ($219 million)
  6. AARP ($214 million)
  7. Blue Cross/Blue Shield ($184 million)
  8. National Association of Realtors ($184 million)
  9. Northrop Grumman ($176 million)
  10. Exxon Mobil ($173 million)

It's hard to imagine how it makes economic sense for a company like defense contractor Northrop Grumman to spend $176 million just to bend the ears of Congressmen. But a quick Google search shows a $189 million contract awarded to Northrop Grumman in March 2012 for a new cybersecurity system for the Department of Defense. Then NATO signed a $1.7 billion contract with Northrop Grumman in May 2012 to build five unarmed surveillance drones. Good lobbying, it turns out, is a great investment.

Now that we know a little more about who lobbyists are, let's take a look at what lobbyists do all day.

What Lobbyists Do

Lobbyists are full-time advocates for their clients. There is no universal job description for a lobbyist. The job responsibilities run the gamut from conducting highly technical policy research to throwing a successful dinner party. The best lobbyists are highly effective communicators with solid people skills, a strong command of the issues, a broad network of contacts and a flair for fundraising.

One of the main responsibilities of a lobbyist is to become an expert on the legislative issues affecting his client. The lobbyist needs to closely monitor the development of legislation that could impact the client's organization, whether it's increased regulation and taxation, or increased federal funding opportunities. Lobbyists not only need to understand the critical legislative issues, but also the byzantine legislative process.

During each stage of the legislative process, the lobbyist must press his client's case. This often involves face-to-face meetings with congressmen and their staffs. This is called direct lobbying [source: The Princeton Review]. The lobbyist must arrive for the meeting with well-researched and persuasive arguments for supporting his client's position on a particular issue. If the congressman is sympathetic to the client's position, then the lobbyist will cultivate a relationship with the senator's office, offering additional research, or in some cases helping to draft the legislation itself.

For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports a huge lobbying presence on Capitol Hill to influence legislation that affects each and every American business owner. The Chamber's executive vice president of government affairs says that he and his lobbyists track over 300 legislative issues of interest to the organization [source: Cook]. When a really big issue like health care reform comes up for a vote, the lobbyists swarm in from insurance companies, hospital associations, medical associations and patient's rights groups. According to the registration records, over 3,300 lobbyists are registered to consult on health policy issues alone.

Indirect lobbying is an equally important part of the job. A lobbyist with strong connections in D.C. might throw a cocktail party at her home and invite influential committee members to mingle with executives from the client organization. Fundraising is another powerful, if controversial way to indirectly influence the allegiance of an elected official. While lobbyists are not allowed to give money or gifts directly to members of Congress, a lobbyist can throw a $10,000 a plate fundraising dinner for an elected official with all donations given by friends and supporters of the client.

For lobbyists with smaller budgets, grassroots lobbying can be an effective tactic. Grassroots lobbying involves winning over public opinion to influence legislators. A lobbyist might accomplish this by writing editorials in newspapers, appearing on political talk shows, or organizing a letter-writing campaign to get the attention of local officials [source: The Princeton Review].

Now let's look at the laws that govern lobbying and what is being done to take the corrupting influence of money out of American politics.

Lobbying and the Law

Although the lobbying industry is pretty tightly regulated, some lobbyists, like Jack Abramoff, pay a high price for flouting the rules.
Although the lobbying industry is pretty tightly regulated, some lobbyists, like Jack Abramoff, pay a high price for flouting the rules.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

While lobbyists are indispensible to the function of the American government, they have always been held in high suspicion. As far back as 1876, the House of Representatives required all lobbyists to register. Three years later, it required that members of the press register with the House and Senate to sit in each chamber's press gallery [source: Byrd]. Apparently, lobbyists were posing as journalists to win access to legislators and tweak the facts in their favor.

Today, lobbyists are held accountable by two pieces of legislation, the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995 and the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. As we mentioned earlier, these laws define a lobbyist in very specific terms. The problem with the laws, critics argue, is that they define lobbyists too specifically. It's simply too easy to work around the definition and therefore not be forced to register as a lobbyist.

For example, any activity that's defined as "educational" doesn't count as lobbying. A corporate client can hire an influential ex-senator to give a series of "educational" speeches and seminars on key legislative issues, but that ex-senator doesn't have to register as a lobbyist [source: Grier]. Then there's the time clause of the lobbying law. According to the law, you're a lobbyist if you devote more than 20 percent of your time lobbying for a specific client. But what if you have many clients, or only a small percentage of your advocacy work involves face-to-face meetings with elected officials? Then you don't have to register as a lobbyist [source: The New York Times].

In recent years, Congress has imposed increasingly strict limits on the activities of registered lobbyists. Gifts of any kind or value are pretty much forbidden. Not only must registered lobbyists file quarterly reports detailing the contacts they made with elected officials, but they must disclose how much money they were paid to do it. Registered lobbyists are also required to file semiannual reports listing any contributions made to elected officials or political campaigns. While these requirements are a step in the right direction, critics say, they are ineffective if so few practicing lobbyists are required to register under the current legal definitions.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has a large stake in lobbying legislation, because many lobbyists are also lawyers. The ABA assigned a task force to recommend ways to "restore honor" to the lobbying profession. One of its critical recommendations was to draw a solid line between lobbying government officials on legislative issues and fundraising for them. "Nothing so contributes to the perception of lobbyists as agents of corruption, rather than as public policy advocates, as the confounding of these two functions," writes the ABA task force. "Conversely, nothing will go further to restoring the honor of this branch of our profession than a determined effort to separate, so far as constitutionally and practically possible, the roles of advocate and fundraiser" [source: Fried].

The notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served more than three years in prison on corruption charges, doesn't believe that new laws like the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 have the teeth to change a broken system. "The people who make the reforms are the people in the system," Abramoff told "60 Minutes" in 2011. "Human beings populate our system. Human beings are weak."

For lots more information on political scandals, controversies and presidential elections, explore the related links on the next page.

Author's Note

It must be a drag to be a lobbyist. What do you say at dinner parties when folks ask what you do for a living? Do you go the "consultant" route? What about "political advocacy?" Or do you just come out and use the "L" word to see how they react? From researching this article, it's clear that most lobbyists are hardworking, ethical people who believe in their work. It's also clear that the nature of the work leaves ample room for the type of wildly unethical behavior that gives lobbyists a reputation that only used car salesmen could envy. In this presidential election season, we see both parties pointing fingers at the "special interest lobbies" that are ruining our country. It's funny how quickly an interest becomes "special" when it's not your interest. The question is, who has the political will to fix a broken system?

Related Articles

Sources

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