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LOBBIES, groups of individuals acting for themselves or others who seek to influence the decisions of government officials, primarily by informal off-the-record communications and exchanges. Their tactics range from such high-pressure techniques as bribery, threats of electoral retaliation, and mass mailings to such low-pressure methods as supplying research and information in support of their views or testifying before Congressional committees. Intermediate forms of influence include campaign contributions and persuasion.

The objects and tactics of lobbying have shifted sharply in American history. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the typical lobbyist focused on the legislative arena and used high-pressure methods, including bribery, to influence legislators. The most notorious examples of illicit lobbying in the nineteenth century involved railroad lobbyists, who brazenly handed out checks to legislators on the floor of the House and Senate. By the 1950s many lobbyists had enlarged their focus to include the executive branch and shifted to soft-sell tactics. This shift in technique was a response to exposure of lobbying scandals at both state and national levels.

Congress began investigating lobbies in 1913 with a study of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Since that time there has been at least one major investigation in every decade. The investigations were followed first by piecemeal legislation and then, in Title III of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, by general legislation to regulate lobbies. These acts and subsequent legislation aim at control primarily through publicity, but many loopholes remain that permit lobbies such as the NAM and Washington, D.C. law firms to avoid registration and others to avoid full disclosure of their activities. While not eliminating lobbies, the investigations and legislation have encouraged lobbies to seek a lower profile by moving away from high-pressure methods.

With the rise of the executive branch as initiator of legislation and the growth of the administrative bureaucracy, the focus of lobbyists began to shift from legislative bodies to executive offices. As a corollary, the growing proportion of lobbying that occurs outside the legislative limelight reduces its overall visibility. Increasingly, chief executives and bureaucratic agencies lobby for legislative passage of bills they have initiated. They often appear to be the sole influence on legislation, even though it is not uncommon for regulatory agencies to be lobbying in the interests of the clientele they are supposed to be regulating. These changes have led critical observers to question the validity of distinguishing between private and public lobbies.

In the 1970s most lobbyists were still acting for associations with an economic interest—business, farm, labor, and the professions. Over half of all registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. are specialized business associations such as the American Petroleum Institute and Aerospace Industries Association. Although multiinterest peak associations such as the AFL-CIO, the Farm Bureau Federation, and the NAM continue to lobby on a variety of congressional issues, critics of lobbying have moved on to new targets—for example, the "military-industrial complex" and the impact of corporate campaign contributions on executive policymaking. In addition to primarily economic lobbies, the twentieth century has seen major lobbying efforts by prohibition groups like the Anti-Saloon League, civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), reform groups like Common Cause, and peace groups like the National Peace Action Committee.

In the 1980s and 1990s social issues became a major focus of lobbying activity in Washington. For example, Christian evangelical organizations such as the Moral Majority lobbied Congress to outlaw abortion and legalize school prayer. In contrast, civil liberties groups such as People for the American Way lobbied Congress to maintain a strict separation of church and state, and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) lobbied Congress to preserve abortion rights. The overall number of lobbies proliferated and included groups as diverse as teacher's unions, policemen, and scientists. Along with the rise in the number of lobbies, the amount of money spent by lobbies on political campaigns escalated enormously.

The late twentieth century also saw a dramatic increase in the role of lobbies in the Senate confirmation process. In 1987 the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL, and other liberal lobbies vigorously opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. The lobbying campaign created a media firestorm, and after weeks of contentious hearings, the Senate rejected Bork's nomination. In the aftermath of the Bork controversy, lobbying organizations have become regular participants in Senate confirmation hearings.

By the 1990s public outcry against lobbies focused on their role in campaign finance. Virtually every major candidate for federal office in the United States relied on contributions from lobbies to finance their campaigns. The massive infusion of money into the political process led many Americans to conclude that lobbies and other political pressure groups threatened to corrupt democracy itself. By the early twenty-first century, the effort to reign in lobbies and reduce the role of money in politics had emerged as one of the principal issues in American political life.


Birnbaum, Jeffrey H. The Lobbyists: How Influence Peddlers Get Their Way in Washington. New York: Times Books, 1992.

Deakin, James. The Lobbyists. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1966.

Hayes, Michael T. Lobbyists and Legislators: A Theory of Political Markets. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981.

Edward S.Malecki/a. g.

See alsoGovernment Regulation of Business ; Interests ; Majority Rule ; Petroleum Industry ; Pharmaceutical Industry ; Pro-Choice Movement ; Pro-Life Movement ; Trucking Industry .