Lobbying in the United States describes paid activity in which special interests hire well-connected professional advocates, often lawyers, to argue for specific legislation in decision-making bodies such as the United States Congress. It is a highly controversial phenomenon, often seen in a negative light by journalists and the American public, and is frequently misunderstood. While lobbying is subject to extensive and often complex rules which, if not followed, can lead to penalties including jail, the activity of lobbying has been interpreted by court rulings as free speech and is therefore protected by the Constitution. Since the 1970s, lobbying activity has grown immensely in terms of the numbers of lobbyists and the size of lobbying budgets, and has become the focus of much criticism of American governance. Since lobbying rules require extensive disclosure, there is a large amount of information in the public sphere about which entities lobby, how, at whom, and for how much. The current pattern suggests much lobbying is done by corporations although a wide variety of coalitions representing diverse groups is possible. Lobbying happens at every level of government, including federal, state, county, municipal, and even local governments. In Washington, lobbying usually targets congresspersons, although there have been efforts to influence executive agency officials as well as Supreme Court appointments. It has been the subject of academic inquiry in various fields, including law, public policy, and economics. While the number of lobbyists in Washington is over twelve thousand, those with real clout number in the dozens, and a small group of firms handles much of lobbying in terms of expenditures.
Political scientist Thomas R. Dye once said that politics is about battling over scarce governmental resources: who gets them, where, when, why and how. Since government makes the rules in a complex economy such as the United States, it is logical that various organizations, businesses, individuals, nonprofits, trade groups, religions, charities and others—which are affected by these rules—will exert as much influence as they can to have rulings favorable to their cause. If voting is a general way for a public to control a government, lobbying is a more specific, targeted effort, focused on a narrower set of issues.
The term lobbying in everyday parlance can describe a wide variety of activities, and in its general sense, suggests advocacy, advertising, or promoting a cause. In this sense, anybody who tries to influence any political position can be thought of as “lobbying”, and sometimes the term is used in this loose sense. A person who writes a letter to a congressperson, or even questions a candidate at a political meeting, could be construed as being a lobbyist.
However, the term “lobbying” generally means a paid activity with the purpose of attempting to “influence or sway” a public official – including bureaucrats and elected officials – towards a desired specific action often relating to specific legislation. If advocacy is disseminating information, including attempts to persuade public officials as well as the public and media to promote the cause of something and support it, then when this activity becomes focused on specific legislation, either in support or in opposition, then it crosses the line from advocacy and becomes lobbying. This is the usual sense of the term “lobbying.” One account suggested that much of the activity of nonprofits was not lobbying per se, since it usually did not mean changes in legislation.
A lobbyist, according to the legal sense of the word, is a professional, often a lawyer. Lobbyists are intermediaries between client organizations and lawmakers: they explain to legislators what their organizations want, and they explain to their clients what obstacles elected officials face. One definition of a lobbyist is someone “employed to persuade legislators to pass legislation that will help the lobbyist’s employer.” Many lobbyists work in lobbying firms or law firms, some of which retain clients outside lobbying. Others work for advocacy groups, trade associations, companies, and state and local governments. Lobbyists can be one type of government official, such as a governor of a state, who presses officials in Washington for specific legislation. A lobbyist may put together a diverse coalition of organizations and people, sometimes including lawmakers and corporations, and the whole effort may be considered to be a lobby; for example, in the abortion issue, there is a “pro-choice lobby” and a “pro-life lobby”.
An estimate from 2007 reported that more than 17,000 federal lobbyists were based in Washington, DC; another estimate from 2011 suggested that the count of registered lobbyists who have actually lobbied was closer to 12,000. While numbers like these suggest that lobbying is a widespread activity, most accounts suggest that the Washington lobbying industry is an exclusive one run by a few well-connected firms and players, with serious barriers to entry for firms wanting to get into the lobbying business, since it requires them to have been “roaming the halls of Congress for years and years.”
The focus of lobbying efforts
Generally, lobbyists focus on trying to persuade decision-makers: Congress, executive branch agencies such as the Treasury Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Supreme Court, state governments (including governors). Federal agencies have been targeted by lobbyists since they write industry-specific rules; accordingly, interest groups spend “massive sums of money” trying to persuade them to make so-called “carve-outs” or try to block specific provisions from being enacted. A large fraction of overall lobbying is focused on only a few sets of issues. It is possible for one level of government to lobby another level; for example, the District of Columbia has been lobbying Congress and the President for greater power, including possible statehood or voting representation in Congress; one assessment in 2011 suggested that the district needed to rethink its lobbying strategy, since its past efforts have only had “mixed results”. Many executive branch agencies have the power to write specific rules and are a target of lobbying. Federal agencies such as the State Department make rules such as giving aid money to countries such as Egypt, and in one example, an Egyptian-American businessman named Kais Menoufy organized a lobby to try to halt U.S. aid to Egypt. Since the Supreme Court has the power of judicial review and can render a congressional law unconstitutional, it has great power to influence the course of American life. For example, in the Roe v. Wade decision, it ruled on the legality of abortion. A variety of forces use lobbying tactics to pressure the court to overturn this decision.
Lobbyists represent their clients’ or organizations’ interests in state capitols. An example is a former school superintendent who has been lobbying state legislatures in California, Michigan and Nevada to overhaul teacher evaluations, and trying to end the “Last In, First Out” teacher hiring processes; according to one report, Michelle Rhee is becoming a “political force.” State governments can be lobbied by groups which represent other governments within the state, such as a city authority; for example, the cities of Tallahassee and St. Petersburg lobbied the Florida legislature using paid lobbyists to represent the city’s interests. There is lobbying activity at the county and municipal levels, especially in larger cities and populous counties. For example, officials within the city government of Chicago called aldermen became lobbyists after serving in municipal government, following a one-year period required by city ethics rules to abstain from lobbying.
Lobbyists The number of registered Washington lobbyists is substantial. In 2009, the Washington Post estimated that there were 13,700 registered lobbyists, describing the nation’s Capitol as “teeming with lobbyists.”. In 2011, The Guardian estimated that in addition to the approximately 13,000 registered lobbyists, thousands more unregistered lobbyists could exist in Washington. The ratio of lobbyists employed by the healthcare industry, compared with every elected politician, was six to one. Nevertheless, the numbers of lobbyists actively engaged in lobbying is considerably less, and the ones occupied with lobbying full-time and making significant money is even less.
Law firms. Several law firms, including Patton Boggs, Akin Gump and Holland & Knight, had sizable departments devoted to so-called “government relations”. Holland & Knight earned $13.9 million from lobbying revenue in 2011.
Lobbying firms. These firms usually have some lawyers in them, and are often founded by former congressional staffers, legislators, or other politicians. Some lobbying groups have been bought by large advertising conglomerates, such as InterPublic Group.
Corporations. Corporations which lobby actively tend to be few in number, large, and often sell to the government. Still, of all the entities doing lobbying in Washington, the biggest overall spenders are, in fact, corporations. Most corporations do not hire lobbyists. One study found that the actual number of firms which do lobbying regularly is fewer than 300, they were “mainly large, rich firms getting in on the fun. Corporations considering lobbying run into substantial barriers to entry: corporations have to research the relevant laws about lobbying, hire lobbying firms, and cultivate influential people and make connections.
Defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin sell extensively to the government and must, of necessity, engage in lobbying to win contracts. Boeing Co. is one of the most influential companies in airline manufacturing and has continually shown its influence in lobbying Congress … Between January and September, Boeing spent a total of $12 million lobbying. Additionally, Boeing has its own political action committee, which donated more than $2.2 million to federal candidates during the 2010 election cycle. Of that sum, 53 percent went to Democrats. …Through September, Boeing’s PAC has donated $748,000 to federal politicians
Wall Street lobbyists and the financial industry spent upwards of $100 million in one year to “court regulators and lawmakers”, particularly since they were “finalizing new regulations for lending, trading and debit card fees. Big banks were “prolific spenders” on lobbying; JPMorgan Chase has an in-house team of lobbyists who spent $3.3 million in 2010; the American Bankers Association spent $4.6 million on lobbying. A trade group representing Hedge Funds spent more than $1 million in one quarter trying to influence the government about financial regulations, including an effort to try to change a rule that might demand greater disclosure requirements for funds. Amazon.com spent $450,000 in one quarter lobbying about a possible online sales tax as well as rules about data protection and privacy..
Unions. One report suggested the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union spent $80,000 lobbying the federal government on issues relating to the tax code, food safety, immigration reform and other issues.
Other players. Other possible players in the lobbying arena are those who might influence legislation: House & Senate colleagues, public opinion in the district, the White House, party leaders, union leaders, and other influential persons and groups.
Lobbying methods and techniques
Lobbying has much in common with highly people-intensive businesses such as management consulting and public relations, but with a political and legal sensibility. Like lawmakers, many lobbyists are lawyers, and the persons they are trying to influence have the duty of writing laws. That the disciplines of law and lobbying are intertwined could be seen in the case of a Texas lawyer who had been seeking compensation for his unfairly imprisoned client; since his exonerated-prisoner client had trouble paying the legal expenses, the lawyer lobbied the Texas state legislature to raise the state’s payment for unfairly imprisoned prisoners from $50,000 per year to $80,000 per year; it succeeded, making it possible for his newly freed client to pay the lawyer’s fees.
Connections count: Well-connected lobbyists work in Washington for years, know the issues, are highly skilled advocates, and have cultivated close connections with members of Congress, regulators, specialists, and others. They understand strategy and have excellent communication skills; many are well suited to be able to choose which clients they would like to represent. Lobbyists patiently cultivate networks of powerful people, over many years, trying to build trust and maintain confidence and friendships. When a client hires them to push a specific issue or agenda, they usually form coalitions to exert political pressure. Access is important and often means a one-on-one meeting with a legislator. Getting access can sometimes be difficult, but there are various avenues: email, personal letters, phone calls, face-to-face meetings, meals, get-togethers, and even chasing after congresspersons in the Capitol building.
When getting access is difficult, there are ways to wear down the walls surrounding a legislator. Access is vital in lobbying. If you can’t get in your door, you can’t make your case. Here we had a hostile senator, whose staff was hostile, and we had to get in. So that’s the lobbyist safe-cracker method: throw fundraisers, raise money, and become a big donor.
Lobbyists often assist congresspersons with campaign finance by arranging fundraisers, assembling PACs, and seeking donations from other clients. Many lobbyists become campaign treasurers and fundraisers for congresspersons. This helps incumbent members cope with the substantial amounts of time required to raise money for reelection bids; one estimate was that congresspersons had to spend a third of their working hours on fundraising activity. PACs are fairly easy to set up; it requires a lawyer and about $300, roughly. An even steeper possible reward which can be used in exchange for favors is the lure of a high-paying job as a lobbyist; according to Jack Abramoff, one of the best ways to “get what he wanted” was to offer a high-ranking congressional aide a high-paying job after they decided to leave public office. When such a promise of future employment was accepted, according to Abramoff, “we owned them”. This helped the lobbying firm exert influence on that particular congressperson by going through the staff member or aide. At the same time, it is hard for outside observers to argue that a particular decision, such as hiring a former staffer into a lobbying position, was purely as a reward for some past political decision, since staffers often have valuable connections and policy experience needed by lobbying firms. Research economist Mirko Draca suggested that hiring a staffer was an ideal way for a lobbying firm to try to sway their old bosses—a congressperson—in the future.
Lobbyists, according to several sources, strive for communications which are clear, straightforward, and direct. In a one-on-one meeting with a lobbyist, it helps to understand precisely what goal is wanted. A lobbyist wants action on a bill; a legislator wants to be re-elected. The idea is to persuade a legislator that what the lobbyist wants is good public policy. Lobbyists often urge lawmakers to try to persuade other lawmakers to approve a bill.
Still, persuasion is a subtle business, requiring a deft touch, and carelessness can boomerang. Since it often takes a long time to build the network of relationships within the lobbying industry, ethical interpersonal dealings are important. A maxim in the industry is for lobbyists to be truthful with people they are trying to persuade; one lobbyist described it this way: “what you’ve basically got is your word and reputation”. An untruth, a lie is too risky to the successful development of a long-term relationship and is not worth it. Below-the-belt tactics generally do not work. Groping for “personal dirt” on opponents was counterproductive since it would undermine respect for the lobbyist and their clients. And, by reverse logic, if an untruth is told by an opponent or opposing lobby, then it makes sense to publicize it. But the general code among lobbyists is that unsubstantiated claims are bad business. Even worse is planting an informant in an opponent’s camp, since if this subterfuge is ever discovered, it will boomerang negatively in a hundred ways, and credibility will drop to zero. Timing, as well, is usually important, in the sense of knowing when to propose a certain action and having a big-picture view of the possible sequence of desired actions. Strategic lobbying tries to estimate the possible responses of different groups to a possible lobby approach; one study suggested that the “expectations of opposition from other interests” was a key factor helping to determine how a lobby should operate.
Increasingly, lobbyists seek to put together coalitions and use outside lobbying by swaying public opinion. Bigger, more diverse and deep pocketed coalitions tend to be more effective in outside lobbying, and the “strength in numbers” principle often applies. Interest groups try to build “sustainable coalitions of similarly situated individual organizations in pursuit of like-minded goals”. According to one study, it is often difficult for a lobbyist to influence a staff member in Congress directly, since staffers tend to be well-informed and subject to views from competing interests. As an indirect tactic, lobbyists can try to manipulate public opinion which, in turn, can sometimes exert pressure on congresspersons. Activities for these purposes include trying to use the mass media, cultivating contacts with reporters and editors, encouraging them to write editorials and cover stories to influence public opinion, which may have the secondary effect of influencing Congress. It is easier to sway public opinion than a congressional staff member since it is possible to bombard the public with “half-truths, distortion, scare tactics, and misinformation.” There should be two goals: (1) communicate that there is public support behind an issue to policymakers and (2) increase public support for the issue among constituents. Lobbying today generally requires mounting a coordinated campaign, using targeted blitzes of telephone calls, letters, emails to congressional lawmakers, marches down the Washington Mall, bus caravans, and such, and these are often put together by lobbyists who coordinate a variety of interest group leaders to unite behind a hopefully simple easy-to-grasp and persuasive message.
It is important for lobbyists to follow rules governing lobbying behavior. These can be difficult and complex, take time to learn, require full disclosure, and mistakes can land a lobbyist in serious legal trouble.
Gifts for congresspersons and staffers can be problematic, since anything of sizeable value must be disclosed and generally such gifts are illegal. Generally gifts to congresspersons or their staffs or federal officials are not allowed, but with a few exceptions: books are permitted, provided that the inside cover is inscribed with the congressperson’s name and the name of one’s organization. Gifts under $5 are allowed. Another exception is awards, so it is permitted to give a congressperson a plaque thanking him or her for support on a given issue. Cash gifts payable by check only can only be made to campaign committees, not to a candidate personally or to his or her staff; it is not permitted to give cash or stock.
Wealthy lobbyists often encourage other lobbying clients to donate to a particular cause, in the hope that favors will be returned at a later date. Lobbyist Gerald Cassidy encouraged other clients to give for causes dear to a particular client engaged in a current lobbying effort. Some lobbyists give their own money: Cassidy reportedly donated a million dollars on one project, according to one report, which noted that Cassidy’s firm received “many times that much in fees from their clients” paid in monthly retainers. And their clients, in turn, had received “hundreds of millions in earmarked appropriations” and benefits worth “hundreds of millions more”.
Lobbyists routinely monitor how congressional officials vote, sometimes checking the past voting records of congresspersons. One report suggested that reforms requiring “publicly recorded committee votes” led to more information about how congresspersons voted, but instead of becoming a valuable resource for the news media or voters, the information helped lobbyists monitor congressional voting patterns. As a general rule, lawmakers must vote as a particular interest group wishes them to vote, or risk losing support.
Strategy usually dictates targeting specific office holders. On the state level, one study suggested that much of the lobbying activity targeted the offices of governors as well as state-level executive bureaucrats; state lobbying was an “intensely personal game” with face-to-face contact being required for important decisions.
Lobbying can be a counteractive response to the lobbying efforts of others. One study suggested this was particularly true for battles surrounding possible decisions by the Supreme Court which is considered as a “battleground for public policy” in which differing groups try to “etch their policy preferences into law.
Lobbyists as educators and advisors
Since government has grown increasingly complex, having to deal with new technologies, the task of writing rules has become more complex. “Government has grown so complex that it is a virtual certainty that more than one agency would be affected by any piece of legislation,” according to one view. Lobbyists, therefore, spend considerable time learning the ins and outs of issues, and can use their expertise to educate lawmakers and help them cope with difficult issues. Lobbyists’ knowledge has been considered to be an intellectual subsidy for lawmakers but that access was far more important.
Lobby groups and their members sometimes also write legislation and whip bills, and in these instances, it is helpful to have lawyers skilled in writing legislation to assist with these efforts. It is often necessary to research relevant laws and issues beforehand. In many instances lobbyists write the actual text of the proposed law, and hire lawyers to “get the language down pat”—an omission in wording or an unclear phrase may open up a loophole for opponents to wrangle over for years. And lobbyists can often advise a lawmaker on how to navigate the approval process.
Lobbying firms can serve as mentors and guides. For example, after months of protesting by the Occupy Wall Street, one lobbying firm prepared a memo to its clients warning that Republicans may “turn on big banks, at least in public” which may have the effect of “altering the political ground for years to come.
A growing billion dollar business
Top lobbying sectors 1998-2010
Client Amount Spent %
1 Finance, Insurance & Real Estate $4,274,060,331 15%
2 Health $4,222,427,808 15%
3 Misc Business $4,149,842,571 14%
4 Communications/Electronics $3,497,881,399 12%
5 Energy & Natural Resources $3,104,104,518 11%
6 Transportation $2,245,118,222 8%
7 Other $2,207,772,363 7%
8 Ideological/Single-Issue $1,477,294,241 5%
9 Agribusiness $1,280,824,983 4%
10 Defense $1,216,469,173 4%
11 Construction $480,363,108 2%
12 Labor $427,355,408 1%
13 Lawyers & Lobbyists themselves $336,170,306 1%
Total $28,919,684,431 99%
Since the 1970s, there has been explosive growth in the lobbying industry, particularly in Washington D.C.. By 2011, one estimate of overall lobbying spending nationally was $30+ billion dollars. An estimate of lobbying expenses in the federal arena was $3.5 billion in 2010, while it had been only $1.4 billion in 1998. And there is prodigious data since firms are required to disclose lobbying expenditures on a quarterly basis.
The industry, however, is not immune to economic downturns. If Congress is gridlocked, such as during the summer and early fall of 2011, lobbying activity dipped considerably, according to The Washington Post. A sea-change in government, such as a shift in control of the legislature from one political party to the other, can affect the lobbying business profoundly.
Examples of lobbying
There are numerous examples of lobbying activity reported by the media. One report chronicled a somewhat unusual alliance of consumer advocates and industry groups to boost funding for the Food and Drug Administration; the general pattern of lobbying efforts had been to try to reduce the regulatory oversight of such an agency. In this case, however, lobbying groups wanted the federal watchdog agency to have tougher policing authority to avert expensive problems when oversight was lax; in this case, industry and consumer groups were in harmony, and lobbyists were able to persuade officials that higher FDA budgets were in the public interest. Religious consortiums, according to one report, have engaged in a $400 million lobbying effort on such issues as the relation between church and state, civil rights for religious minorities, bioethics issues including abortion and capital punishment and end-of-life issues, and family issues.
Lobbying as a career
While national-level lobbyists working in Washington have the highest salaries, many lobbyists operating at the state level can earn substantial salaries. The table shows the top lobbyists in one state—Maryland—in 2011.
Gerard E. Evans $1,232,000
Timothy A. Perry $1,217,793
Joel D. Rozner $1,215,161
Robin F. Shaivitz $1,156,368
Gregory S. Proctor Jr. $1,107,144
John R. Stierhoff $1,059,766
Michael V. Johansen $1,050,234
Nicholas G. Manis $1,016,250
D. Robert Enten $863,193
Lisa Harris Jones $857,000
Top power-brokers such as Gerald Cassidy have made fortunes from lobbying:
Cassidy’s reaction to his own wealth has been complicated. He lives large, riding around town in his chauffeured car, spending thousands on custom-made clothes, investing big money in, for example, the Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant at the foot of Capitol Hill just for the fun of it. He has fashioned a wine cellar of more than 7,000 bottles. He loves to go to England and live like a gentleman of the kind his Irish antecedents would have considered an anathema.
Effectiveness of lobbying
There is general agreement that money is a key variable in lobbying.
The general consensus view is that lobbying generally works overall in achieving sought-after results for clients, particularly since it has become so prevalent with substantial and growing budgets, although there are dissenting views. Spending on lobbying was a “spectacular investment” yielding “blistering” returns comparable to a high-flying hedge fund, even despite the financial downturn of the past few years.
Deep pockets speak; the money trumps it all. —Anonymous lobbyist, 2002
Still, effectiveness can vary depending on the situational context. One view is that large multiple-issue lobbies tend to be effective in getting results for their clients if they are sophisticated, managed by a legislative director familiar with the art of compromise, and play “political hardball”. But if such lobbies became too big, such as large industrial trade organizations, they became harder to control, often leading to lackluster results. A study in 2001 which compared lobbying activity in US-style congressional versus European-style parliamentary systems, found that in congressional systems there was an advantage favoring the “agenda-setters”, but that in both systems, “lobbying has a marked effect on policies”. One report suggested that the 1,000 registered lobbyists in California were highly influential Lobbying is a practical necessity for firms that “live and die” by government decisions, such as large government contractors such as Boeing. A study done in 2006 by Bloomberg News suggested that lobbying was a “sound money-making strategy” for the 20 largest federal contractors. The largest contractor, Lockheed Martin Corporation, received almost $40 billion in federal contracts in 2003-4, and spent $16 million on lobbying expenses and campaign donations. For each dollar of lobbying investment, the firm received $2,517 in revenues.
Lobbying has been the subject of much debate and discussion. There is general consensus that lobbying has been a significant corrupting influence in American politics, although criticism is not universal, and there have been arguments put forward to suggest that the system is working properly.
Negative image. Generally the image of lobbyists and lobbying in the public sphere is not a positive one, although this is not a universal sentiment. Lobbyists have been described as a “hired gun” without principles or positions. Scandals involving lobbying have helped taint the image of the profession, such as ones involving Jack Abramoff, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, and Bob Nye and others, and which featured words such as “bribery”, “lobbyist”, “member of Congress” and “prison” tending to appear together in the same articles. Negative publicity can sully lobbying’s image to a great extent – public officials such as Newt Gingrich being accused and then denying accusations of having done lobbying and earning $1.6 million from “strategic advice”. While there is much disclosure, much of it happens in hard-to-disclose personal meetings, and the resulting secrecy and confidentiality can serve to lower lobbying’s status.
The image of a revolving door has been used to describe the relation between working in government and for lobbyists. Since the 1980s, congresspersons and staffers have been “going downtown”—becoming lobbyists—and the big draw is money. The “lucrative world of K Street” means that former congresspersons with even “modest seniority” can move into jobs paying $1 million or more annually, without including bonuses for bringing in new clients. Since 1998, 43 percent of the 198 members of Congress who left government to join private life have registered to lobby. A similar report from the Center for Responsive Politics found 370 former members were in the “influence-peddling business”, with 285 officially registered as federal lobbyists, and 85 others who were described as providing “strategic advice” or “public relations” to corporate clients. The Washington Post described these results as reflecting the “sea change that has occurred in lawmakers’ attitudes toward lobbying in recent years.” The report included a case study of one particularly successful lobbyist, Bob Livingston, who stepped down as Speaker-elect and resigned his seat in 1999. In the six years since his resignation, The Livingston Group grew into the 12th largest non-law lobbying firm, earning nearly $40 million by the end of 2004. During roughly the same time period, Livingston, his wife, and his two political action committees (PACs) contributed over $500,000 to the campaign funds of various candidates.
A 2011 estimate suggested that nearly 5,400 former congressional staffers had become federal lobbyists over a ten-year period, and 400 lawmakers made a similar jump. It is a “symbiotic relationship” in the sense that lobbying firms can exploit the “experience and connections gleaned from working inside the legislative process”, and lawmakers find a “ready pool of experienced talent.” There is movement in the other direction as well: one report found that 605 former lobbyists had taken jobs working for lawmakers over a ten-year period. A study by the London School of Economics found 1,113 lobbyists who had formerly worked in lawmakers’ offices. Before the 1980s, staffers and aides worked many years for congresspersons, sometimes decades, and tended to stay in their jobs; now, with the lure of higher-paying lobbying jobs, many would quit their posts after a few years at most to “go downtown.”
Lawmaker turned lobbyist: Democratic congressperson Dick Gephardt switched to lobbying and has been making millions annually working for clients such as Goldman Sachs.
And it is not just staffers, but lawmakers as well, including high-profile ones such as congressperson Richard Gephardt. He represented a “working-class” district in Missouri for many years but after leaving Congress, he became a lobbyist. In 2007, he began his own lobbying firm called “Gephardt Government Affairs Group” and in 2010 it was earning close to $7 million in revenues with clients including Goldman Sachs, Boeing, Visa Inc., Ameren Corporation, and Waste Management Inc.. Senators Robert Bennett and Byron Dorgan became lobbyists too. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour became a lobbyist. In 2010, former representative Billy Tauzin earned $11 million running the drug industry’s lobbying organization. called the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Many former representatives earned over $1 million in one year, including James Greenwood and Daniel Glickman.
Insider’s game. Occupy Wall Street protesters have been critical of lobbying in government.
A similar concern voiced by critics of lobbying is that Washington politics has become dominated by elites, and that it is an “insider’s game” excluding regular citizens and which favors entrenched firms. Individuals generally can not afford to lobby, and critics question whether corporations with “deeper pockets” should have greater power than regular persons. In this view, the system favors the rich, such that the “rich have gotten richer, the weak weaker”, admits lobbyist Gerald Cassidy. There is so much money that it has been described as a “flood” that has a “corrupting influence”, so that the United States appears to be “awash” in interest groups. If coalitions of different forces battle in the political arena for favorable treatment and better rules and tax breaks, it can be seen as fair if both sides have equal resources and try to fight for their interests as best they can.
A related but slightly different criticism is that the problem with lobbying as it exists today is that it creates an “inequity of access to the decision-making process”. As a result, important needs get left out of the political evaluation, such that there are no anti-hunger lobbies or lobbies seeking serious solutions to the problem of poverty. Nonprofit advocacy has been “conspicuously absent”. Critics suggest that when a powerful coalition battles a less powerful one, or one which is poorly connected or underfunded, the result may be seen as unfair and potentially harmful for the entire society. The increasing number of former lawmakers becoming lobbyists has led Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) to propose paring back the many Capitol Hill privileges enjoyed by former senators and representatives. His plan would deprive lawmakers-turned-lobbyists of privileges such as unfettered access to otherwise “members only” areas such as the House and Senate floors and the House gym.
Studies have linked problems in the housing industry with lobbying efforts.
A concern among many critics is that influence peddling hurts overall decision making, according to this criticism. Proposals with merit are dropped in favor of proposals backed by political expediency. An example cited in the media is the recent battling between food industry lobbyists and healthcare lobbyists regarding school lunches. A group supported by the United States Department of Agriculture proposed healthier lunches as a way to combat childhood obesity by limiting the number of potatoes served, limiting salty foods, and adding more fresh vegetables, but this group was countered by a strong food lobby backed by Coca-Cola, Del Monte, and makers of frozen pizza. The food lobbyists succeeded in blocking the proposed reforms, even writing rules suggesting that the tomato paste on a pizza qualified as a vegetable, but overall, according to critics, this case appeared to be an example where business interests won out over health concerns. Critics use examples such as these to suggest that lobbying distorts sound governance.
A study by IMF economists found that the “heaviest lobbying came from lenders making riskier loans and expanding their mortgage business most rapidly during the housing boom,” and that there were indications that heavy-lobbying lenders were more likely to receive bailout funds. The study found a correlation between lobbying by financial institutions and excessive risk-taking during 2000-2007, and the authors concluded that “politically active lenders played a role in accumulation of risks and thus contributed to the financial crisis”. Another study suggested that governments tend to protect domestic industries, and have a habit of shunting monies to ailing sectors; the study suggested that “it is not that government policy picks losers, it is that losers pick government policy.” One critic suggested that the financial industry has successfully blocked attempts at regulation in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse.
Lobbyists collided over school lunches. Pizza can be served to schoolchildren since tomato paste can be considered as a vegetable and part of a healthy meal.
Critics have contended that when lawmakers are drawn into battles to determine issues such as the composition over school lunches or how much an ATM fee should be, more serious issues such as deficit reduction or global warming or social security are neglected. It leads to legislative inertia. The concern is that the preoccupation with what are seen as superficial issues prevents attention to long-term problems. Critics suggested that the 2011 Congress spent more time discussing per-transaction debit-card fees while neglecting issues seen as more pressing.
In this line of reasoning, critics contend that lobbying, in and of itself, is not the sole problem, but only one aspect of a larger problem with American governance. Critics point to an interplay of factors: citizens being uninvolved politically; congresspersons needing huge sums of money for expensive television advertising campaigns; increased complexity in terms of technologies; congresspersons spending three days of every week raising money; and so forth. Given these temptations, lobbying came along as a logical response to meet the needs of congresspersons seeking campaign funds and staffers seeking personal enrichment. In a sense, in competitive politics, the common good gets lost: I know what my client wants; no one knows what the common good is. —Anonymous lobbyist
A lobbyist can identify a client’s needs. But it is hard for a single individual to say what is best for the whole group. The intent of the Constitution’s Framers was to have built-in constitutional protections to protect the common good, but according to these critics, these protections do not seem to be working well: The structure of representative government, elected by the people, was to be our system’s built-in protection of the whole of us—fairly elected officeholders were to represent their constituent groups, free from any obligations to special interests. Unfortunately, money has corrupted the system and compromised both the fairness of the electoral process as well as the independence and impartiality of elected officials.
Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and author of Republic, Lost, suggested that the moneyed persuasive power of special interests has insinuated itself between the people and the lawmakers. He quoted congressperson Jim Cooper who remarked that Congress had become a “Farm League for K Street” in the sense that congresspersons were focused on lucrative lobbying careers after Congress rather than on serving the public interest while in office. In a speech, Lessig suggested the structure of incentives was such that legislators were tempted to propose unnecessary regulations as a way to further lobbying industry activity. According to one view, major legislation such as proposed Wall Street reforms have spurred demand for “participating in the regulatory process.” Lessig suggested the possibility that it was not corporations deciding to take up lobbying, but Congress choosing to debate less-than-important issues to bring well-heeled corporations into the political fray as lobbyists. As a result of his concerns, Lessig has called on state governments to summon a Second Constitutional Convention to propose substantive reform. Lessig believes that a constitutional amendment should be written to limit political contributions from non-citizens, including corporations, anonymous organizations, and foreign nationals.
Our current tax system with all its complexities is in part designed to make it easier for candidates, in particular congressmen, to raise money to get back to congress … All sorts of special exceptions which expire after a limited period of time are just a reason to pick up the phone and call somebody and say ‘Your exception is about to expire, here’s a good reason for you to help us fight to get it to extend.’ And that gives them the opportunity to practice what is really a type of extortion – shaking the trees of money in the private sector into their campaign coffers so that they can run for congress again.
Scholars such as Richard Labunski, Sanford Levinson, Glenn Reynolds, Larry Sabato, as well as newspaper columnist William Safire, and activists such as John Booth of RestoringFreedom.org have called for constitutional changes that would curb the powerful role of money in politics.
Growth of lobbying
Law in the United States is generally made by Congress, but as the federal government has expanded during much of the twentieth century, there are a sizeable number of federal agencies, generally under the control of the president. These agencies write often industry-specific rules and regulations regarding such things as automobile safety and air quality. Unlike elected congresspersons who are constantly seeking campaign funds, these appointed officials are harder to influence, generally. However, there are indications that lobbyists seek to expand their influence from the halls of Congress deeper into the federal bureaucracy.
President Obama pledged during the election campaign to rein in lobbying. As president in January 2009, he signed two executive orders and three presidential memoranda to help ensure his administration would be more open, transparent, and accountable. These documents attempted to bring increased accountability to federal spending and limit the influence of special interests, and included a lobbyist gift ban and a revolving door ban. In May 2009, the Recovery Act Lobbying Rules. The Executive Branch Reform Act, H.R. 985, was a bill which would have required over 8,000 Executive Branch officials to report into a public database nearly any “significant contact” from any “private party.” The purpose was to identify lobbying activity. The bill was supported by proponents as an expansion of “government in the sunshine” including groups such as Public Citizen.
But the proposals ran into serious opposition from various groups including the lobbying industry itself. Opponents argued that the proposed reporting rules would have infringed on the right to petition, making it difficult not just for lobbyists, but for regular citizens to communicate their views on controversial issues without having their names and viewpoints entered into a government database. Opposition groups suggested that although the proposed rules were promoted as a way to regulate “lobbyists,” persons described as a “private party” could be practically anybody, and that anybody contacting a federal official might be deemed to be a “lobbyist”. The U.S. Department of Justice raised constitutional and other objections to the bill. Opponents mobilized over 450 groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Realtors with letter writing campaigns against the proposed restrictions. Lobbyist Howard Marlowe argued in a “stern letter” that the restriction on gift-giving to federal employees would create “fear of retribution for political donations”:
Since your announcement to seek the Presidency you have consistently attacked the honorable profession of lobbying … Lobbyists play an important role in the legislative process, serving as educators to elected officials. It is in the best interest to government to have informed individuals who serve as experts in every arena of public policy. Our ability to access and navigate the legislative process and push issues forward through a bureaucratic cluster is a vital service to the nation. The Draft Order would inhibit one of the most vital tools in the advocate’s arsenal by creating fear of retribution for political donations. Making this kind of disclosure a part of the bidding process tarnishes a competition based on qualifications, adds an unneeded level of bureaucracy, and endangers the protection of free speech afforded to all Americans by the First Amendment of the Constitution…
In 2011, there were efforts to “shift regulatory power from the executive branch to Congress” by requiring that any “major rule” which may cost the economy more than $100 million must be decided by Congress with an up-or-down vote. But skeptics think that such a move proposed by Republican lawmakers could “usher in a lobbying bonanza from industry and other special-interest groups” to use campaign contributions to reshape the regulatory milieu.
Attempts at reform
Critics suggest that Congress has the power to fix itself, but is reluctant to sacrifice money and power. One report suggested that those in control had an “unbroken record of finding ways to navigate around reform laws or turn regulatory standards to their own advantage.”
Arguments for lobbying
There are counterarguments that the system is working as it should, despite being rather messy. According to this line of argument, the Madisonian view of politics—in which factions were supposed to compete with other factions—is working exactly as it should. Competing factions, or in this case, competing interest groups, square off. Battling happens within the federal government, but instead of by settling arguments by elections, arguments are settled by powerful interest groups fighting each other, often financially. And it might appear to members of groups which lost in a lobbying battle that the reason for their loss was that the other side lobbied unfairly using more money. There are numerous instances in which opposed lobbies stalemate, and instances in which these stalemates have been seen as a positive result. And sometimes powerful financial interests lose the battle.
Lobbying brings valuable information to policymakers, according to another argument in favor of lobbying. Since lobbyists often become highly knowledgeable about a specific issue by studying it in depth over years, they can bring considerable expertise to help legislators avoid errors as well as grasp the nuances of complex issues. This information can also help Congress oversee numerous federal agencies which often regulate complex industries and issue highly detailed and specific rulings. Accordingly, it is difficult for Congress to keep track of what these agencies do. It has been argued that lobbyists can help Congress monitor this activity by possibly raising “red flags” about proposed administrative rulings. Further, congresspersons can quickly gauge where they stand about a proposed administrative ruling simply by seeing which lobbying groups support the proposal, and which oppose it.
Another argument in support of lobbying is that different interest groups and lobbyists, while trying to build coalitions and win support, often amend or soften or change their positions in this process, and that interest groups and lobbyists regulate each other, in a sense.
But a more general sentiment supporting the lobbying arrangement is that every citizen can be construed as being “represented” by dozens of special interests: Every citizen is a special interest… Blacks, consumers, teachers, pro-choicers, gun control advocates, handicapped people, aliens, exporters, and salesmen — are all special interests… There is not an American today who is not represented (whether he or she knows it or not) by at least a dozen special interest groups. … One person’s special interest is another person’s despotism…
This is what users saw when they tried to access Wikipedia on January 18, 2012. Wikipedia participated in a lobbying campaign by blacking out the encyclopedia for a day, and encouraged users to contact congresspersons to support positions it favored as part of an outside lobbying effort.
If powerful groups such as the oil industry succeed in winning a battle in government, consumers who drive gas-powered cars stand to benefit a little bit, according to this view. Even readers of Wikipedia could be conceived as being a special interest and represented by various lobbies. For example, when rules were proposed in Congress to try to curtail online piracy, opponents wondered whether such rules might restrict sites such as Wikipedia; on January 18, 2012, as a form of protest and as a way to encourage readers and contributors of Wikipedia to write their congresspersons, the online encyclopedia was “blacked out” for a day as part of an effort to lobby the government.
Another view in support of lobbying is that it serves a helpful purpose as helping guard against extremism. According to this view, lobbying adds “built-in delays” and permits and encourages opposing lobbies to battle. In the battling, possibly damaging decrees and incorrect decisions are stymied by seemingly unhelpful delays and waits.
A slightly different view is that lobbying is no different from other professions:
Lobbying is no more perfect than is the practice of law or the practice of medicine.
The regulatory environment
Disclosure and domestic regulations
Generally, the United States requires systematic disclosure of lobbying, and it may be one of the few countries to have such extensive requirements. Disclosure in one sense allows lobbyists and public officials to justify their actions under the banner of openness and with full compliance of the law. The rules often specify how much a lobbyist can spend on specific activities, and how to report expenses; many of the laws and guidelines are specified in the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. Transparency and disclosure requirements mean that there are volumes of statistics available for all kinds of analyses—by journalists, by the public, by rival lobbying efforts. Researchers can subdivide lobbying expenditures by numerous breakdowns, such as by contributions from energy companies.
Sometimes defining clearly who is a “lobbyist” and what precisely are lobbying activities can be difficult. According to the Lobbying Disclosure Act, several authorized definitions include:
Lobbying activities means “lobbying contacts and efforts in support of such contacts, including preparation and planning activities, research and other background work that is intended, at the time it is performed, for use in contacts, and coordination with the lobbying activities of others.” Lobbying contact means “any oral or written communication (including an electronic communication) to a covered executive branch official or a covered legislative branch official”.
Still, distinguishing lobbyists from a strategic adviser can be difficult, since the duties of each can often overlap and are hard to define precisely. There have been issues raised about what constitutes the difference between a lobbyist and a bundler; one report described bundlers as “supporters who contribute their own money to his campaign and solicit it from others”, and there was a question whether such persons were really lobbyists involved with raising campaign monies for the election of Barack Obama, and whether Obama had broken his own pledge not to receive money from lobbyists. The legal ramifications of lobbying are further intertangled with aspects of campaign finance reform, since lobbyists often spend time seeking donations for the reelection efforts of congresspersons; sorting out these issues can pose ethical challenges.
There are numerous regulations governing the practice of lobbying, often ones requiring transparency and disclosure. People paid to lobby must register with the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House of Representatives within 45 days of contacting a legislator for the first time, or 45 days after being employed. An exception is that lobbyists who earn less than $3,000 per client for each fiscal quarter, or whose total lobbying expenses are less than $11,500 each quarter, do not need to register. Part-time lobbyists are exempt from registering unless they spend more than 20% of their working hours doing lobbying activities in any quarter. If lobbyists have two or more contacts with a legislator as a lobbyist, then they must register. Requirements for registering also apply to companies that specialize in lobbying, or ones that have an in-house lobbyist, particularly if they spend more than $11,500 on lobbying. Generally, nonprofit organizations, other than churches, are exempt from registering if they hire an outside lobbying firm. Filing must be made each quarter, and a separate file is needed for each of the lobbyist’s clients, and include information such as the name and title of the client, an estimate of lobbying expenses, and an estimate of income the lobbyist achieved after doing the lobbying.
States, in addition, are moving in the direction of greater disclosure and transparency regarding lobbying activities. California has an online database called Cal-Access although there were reports that it has been underfunded. Money collected from registration fees are often used to pay for the disclosure services such as Cal-Access. There were complaints in Illinois that the disclosure requirements were often not rigorous enough and allowed lobbyists to work “without public notice” and with possible “conflicts of interest”. Many local municipalities are requiring legislative agents register as lobbyists to represent the interests of clients to local city council members such as in the swing state of Ohio cities such as Columbus and Cincinnati.
Laws requiring disclosure have been more prevalent in the twentieth century. In 1946, there was a so-called “sunshine law” requiring lobbyists to disclose what they were doing, on whose behalf, and how much they received in payment. The resulting Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act (1946) governed lobbying rules up until 1995 when the Lobbying Disclosure Act replaced it. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, later amended in 2002 as the McCain Feingold Act, had rules governing campaign contributions. Each branch of Congress has rules as well. Legislation generally requires reports containing an accounting of major expenditures as well as legislation that was influenced; the wording of some of the pertinent laws can be found in 2 U.S.C. ch.26.
The laws are often rather specific, and when not observed, can lead to serious trouble. Failing to file a quarterly report, or knowingly filing an incorrect report, or failing to correct an incorrect report, can lead to fines up to $200,000 and imprisonment up to five years. Penalties can apply to lobbyists who fail to list gifts made to a legislator. In other situations, the punishment can be light: for example, Congressional aide-turned-lobbyist Fraser Verrusio spent a few hours in jail after pleading guilty to report taking a client to a World Series baseball game and failing to report it. Tax rules can apply to lobbying. In one situation, the charity Hawaii Family Forum risked losing its tax-exempt status after it had engaged in lobbying activity; federal tax law requires charities such as that one to limit their lobbying to 20% of their overall expenditures or else be eligible for being taxed like a for-profit corporation.
Lobbyists sometimes support rules requiring greater transparency and disclosure: Our profession is at a critical point where we can either embrace the constructive changes and reforms by Congress or we can seek out loopholes and continue the slippery slide into history along side the ranks of snake oil salesmen.
Scandals can spur impetus towards greater regulation as well. The Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal, which started in the 1990s and led to a guilt plea in 2006, inspired the ‘Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006’ (S. 2349). According to Time Magazine the Senate bill: barred lobbyists themselves from buying gifts and meals for legislators, but left a loophole in which firms and organizations represented by those lobbyists could still dole out gifts and perks; allowed privately funded trips if lawmakers got prior approval from a commissioned ethics committee; required lobbyists to file frequent and detailed activity reports and have them posted publicly. The bill was approved in 2006 by a 90-8 vote.
The 104th Congress tried to reform Lobbying by passing the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 which defines and requires lobbyists who are compensated for their actions to register with congressional officials. The legislation was later amended by the Lobbying Disclosure Technical Amendments Act of 1998. There were subsequent modifications leading to the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. The Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 (H.R. 4975) legislation modified Senate rules, although some senators and a coalition of good-government groups assailed the bill as being too weak. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 was a comprehensive ethics and lobbying reform bill, (H.R. 2316), which passed in 2007 in the House and Congress by a large majority. A parallel Senate version of the legislation, (S. 1), passed in 2007 by a nearly unanimous vote. After the House & Senate resolved their differences and passed an amended revision, President Bush signed the enrolled bill into law (Pub.L. 110–81).
Some states have considered banning government employees permanently from lobbying on issues they had worked on. For example, there was a proposal along these lines to prevent county employees in Maryland from ever lobbying on issues they had worked on. The proposal insisted that county officials post financial disclosures as well as prohibit gifts from contractors.
Jack Abramoff, emerging from prison, has spoken publicly about lobbying. In his view, regulations designed to rein in the excesses of lobbying have not been effective, and that reforms and regulations have not cleaned up the system “at all”. Abramoff said lobbyists could “find a way around just about any reform Congress enacted”, and gave an example:
You can’t take a congressman to lunch for $25 and buy him a hamburger or a steak or something like that … But you can take him to a fund-raising lunch and not only buy him that steak, but give him $25,000 extra and call it a fund-raiser — and have all the same access and all the same interactions with that congressman.
A similar view suggested that lobbying reform efforts have been “fought tooth and nail to prevent its passage” since the people with the power to reform would curtail their own powers and income flows.
Since commerce worldwide is becoming more integrated, with firms headquartered in one country increasingly doing business in many other countries, it is logical to expect that lobbying efforts will reflect the increasing globalization. Sometimes foreign-owned corporations will want to lobby the United States government, and in such instances, new rules can apply, since it can be particularly thorny resolving whether national security interests are at stake and how they might be affected.
In 1938, the Foreign Agents Registration Act required an explicit listing of all political activities undertaken by a lobbyist on behalf of any foreign principal. There had serious concerns about lobbying firms representing foreign entities – and potentially values opposed to American principles – after Axis power agitprop was planted in American soils during World War II through the efforts of public-relations specialist Ivy Lee’s proxy firm “German Dye Trust”. As a result, in 1938, the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA was passed by Congress, and this law required foreign lobbyists to share information about their contracts with the Justice Department. FARA’s mandate was to disclose to policymakers the sources of information that influenced public opinions, policies, and law. However, the goal was not to restrict the speech of the lobbyist or the content of the lobbying. Nonetheless, it was estimated that less than half of foreign lobbyists who should have registered under FARA actually did so.
By the 1960s, perceived failures in FARA’s enforcement led to public outcry against lobbying excesses, while revelations of foreign bribery circulated regularly well into the early 1970s. This prompted legislation proposed to reduce the autonomy of foreign firms, most of which was not ratified for concerns over a lack of constitutionality. While the House of Representatives passed a rule to increase public scrutiny of foreign lobbying, one estimate was that about 75% of lobbyists were exempt from a registration requirement, including individuals representing foreign interests.
A general trend is that the number of lobbyists representing foreign companies is rising. The case of Washington’s APCO Worldwide, a firm which represented the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha of Nigeria in 1995 whose regime had hanged nine pro-democracy activists, attracted negative publicity. While current law forbids foreign nations from contributing to federal, state, or local elections, loopholes allow American subsidiaries of foreign corporations to establish so-called separated segregated funds or SSFs to raise money. According to one view, the definition of which firms are defined as “foreign” was unclear, and the lack of clarity undermines the ability to regulate their activity. Foreign-funded lobbying efforts include those of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, and China lobbies.
While Congress has tried to quell criticisms against the leverage of domestic lobbying firms by updating domestic lobbying legislation – such as the revision of the Lobbyist Disclosure Act in 1997)—there was a report that its inaction in rectifying loopholes in foreign lobbying regulation has led to scandals. There was a report of an upsurge of lobbying by foreign-owned U.S. subsidiaries against Democratic efforts to limit campaign spending in early 2010. The proposed was to restrict lobbying by U.S. subsidiaries of foreign firms. In 2011, the Chinese firm Alibaba hired a lobbying firm in Washington when it began contemplating a purchase of the U.S. firm Yahoo!. There was a case in which a lobbying effort described as “extraordinary” was trying to change the designation of a fringe Iranian opposition group from being a terrorist organization to being a benign organization. Lobbyists seeking to downgrade the designation hired influential foreign affairs officials, including former CIA directors, a former FBI director, and others to advocate for the change of designation. But there have been others accused of illegally lobbying for foreign nations or who failed to register as a foreign agent who may face prison time as a result.