views updated May 29 2018


Patterns of lobbying

The study of lobbying



If we had data on every government in every culture, we would probably find that lobbying in some form is an inevitable concomitant of government. The term originated in American governmental experience about 1830. Certain representatives of interest groups loitered in the lobbies off the assembly halls of the American Congress and state legislatures, hoping to get a chance to speak to legislators and thereby attempt to influence their decisions. As the term became part of the vernacular, it was broadened to include anyone who attempted to influence the decision of a governmental official. The term is currently used quite loosely, and often inappropriately, for all kinds of influence endeavors. Since it is popularly believed that lobbyists use improper methods in their attempts to influence officials, the term “lobbying” carries an unpleasant connotation to many minds.

Despite the imprecision of the current use of the term, some boundaries can be defined. (1) Lobbying occurs only in governmental decision making. Decisions made by private individuals, organizations, or corporations may be influenced by special interests, but the influence should not be called lobbying. (2) All lobbying is motivated by a desire to influence. Many actions and events may affect the outcome of governmental decisions, but if they are not accompanied by an intent to influence, there is no lobbying. (3) Lobbying implies the presence of an intermediary or representative as a communication link between citizens and governmental decision makers. A citizen who, of his own volition and by his own means, sends a message to a governmental decision maker is not considered a lobbyist even though he is attempting to influence governmental decisions. (4) All lobbying involves communication, for that is the only way that influence can be transmitted. Broadly defined, then, lobbying is the stimulation and transmission of a communication, by someone other than a citizen acting on his own behalf, directed to a governmental decision maker with the hope of influencing his decision.

Although most lobbyists do represent special-interest groups, or pressure groups, lobbying is not identical with interest-group behavior. For one thing, individuals as well as groups utilize lobbying. Second, interest groups engage in many activities in addition to lobbying; some groups, in fact, do not engage in lobbying at all. Third, individuals or groups with special interests may find direct representation without the intercession of lobbyists. Lobbying, then, is but one process or means of representation that individuals and groups might utilize.

Lobbying should be thought of as a process rather than as an organization. It is most helpful to think of it as a communication process by which lobbyists attempt to get governmental officials to accept the policy desires of lobbying clients. It is the lobbyist's job to create messages and to choose means of transmission that are most likely to ensure clear and favorable reception of the message by the intended receiver. This means that the lobbyist must anticipate the predispositions of his intended receiver(s) and so act that the message will be favorably received with as little distortion as possible. He must take care that the message is not intercepted or blocked. He must choose a transmission channel that is open (has access), is not likely to be overloaded, and has a low noise level.

The origin of the term “lobbying” and its legal definition in the United States statute, the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946, leads many persons to believe that lobbying applies only to legislative decisions. The definition given above suggests, however, that lobbying occurs just as readily with executive-branch officials as with legislators, and even to a certain extent with judicial officials. Empirical data for the United States national government show that executive-branch lobbying is just as prevalent as legislative-branch lobbying (Milbrath 1963, pp. 319-320; Cherington & Gillen 1962).

Patterns of lobbying

Although there have been studies of interest groups in a number of countries, studies of the lobbying process are relatively rare and nearly always confined to the United States. Consequently, little is known about how lobbying is conducted outside of the United States. It does seem clear, however, that only in the United States are large numbers of special political actors designated to play the role of lobbyist on a full-time, professional basis. Most of the persons who perform lobbying functions in other national cultures probably do so as a part-time activity while maintaining a major role as an interest-group official, labor union official, attorney, or corporation executive.

For lack of empirical evidence, one can only speculate on reasons for the greater emphasis on lobbying in the United States as compared with other countries. One possible reason is that representation of interests is more clearly built into the governmental system of other Western countries than into the American governmental system. Interest groups, in these other countries, are given seats on advisory boards or are consulted as a matter of course by ministers or bureau chiefs. In addition, interest groups often succeed in electing one or more of their own men to seats in the legislative body. Of course, these things also occur in American government, but the difference in emphasis is substantial. American interest groups believe they must take the initiative if they hope to be heard at decision time.

Another possible reason for the difference in lobbying between America and other Western countries is the difference in centralization of decision making in the government. In most Western governments, decision making is highly concentrated in the cabinet executive, whereas in the United States it is divided between the executive and the legislature, and sometimes between the state and national governments. A diffuse decision process, one that has many decision points, more likely requires continuous scrutiny and pressure by special interests in order to get a policy moved past each of these points. In a sense, lobbying must be used in a diffuse decisional system to avoid degeneration of the system into inaction or stalemate.

Differences in the political-party system also seem to affect lobbying. European parties are more closely allied with and based on interest groups (especially in multiparty systems). Generally, they also are more “responsible” (able and required to carry out their program when given power) than American parties. American parties are so heterogeneous that they must compromise group interests rather than clearly speak for them. Furthermore, American parties cannot be counted on for firm policy leadership. Interest groups in the United States have almost abandoned working through parties and instead have hired lobbyists to secure policy representation (Milbrath 1963, p. 200). By way of contrast, European interest groups are more likely than American interest groups to find political parties a useful means of representation and to depend to a lesser extent on lobbying (Beer 1958, p. 138).

During the initial stages of lobbying's development in the United States, some groups sought competitive advantage over other groups by sending a personal envoy (a lobbyist) to the seat of government. Lobbying at this stage was very much a function of the direct personal relationship between lobbyists and official decision makers. Groups with more competent lobbyists were more likely to have their messages accepted by government officials. Groups at a competitive disadvantage because they had no lobbyist were stimulated also to send a lobbyist envoy. Eventually, the seat of the national government, and also the seats of some state governments, became crowded with lobbyists clamoring for an opportunity to deliver direct personal messages to officials. Easy access for direct communication between lobbyist and official, which had been possible with only a limited number of lobbyists, became very difficult. (Currently there are between eight hundred and one thousand registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C.)

Faced with a situation where the channels of direct communication with officials were constantly overloaded and seldom available, lobbyists turned to indirect communication methods. They sent messages through intermediaries who were thought to have better access, such as constituents or friends of the officials. They stimulated mass letter or telegram campaigns, hoping to impress officials with a ground swell of public sentiment for or against a policy. They launched massive public relations campaigns in the mass media, hoping to change (or maintain) political attitudes. This shift of tactics to indirect communication methods became known as “lobbying at the grass roots”

However, indirect methods also are limited in effectiveness. Grass-roots campaigns conducted by strong competitive groups often result in stalemate or status quo. Campaigns stimulated by lobbyists usually are detected as such by officials, and their potential impact is seriously discounted through knowledge of their nonspontaneous nature. Successful public relations campaigns require subtle management and are very expensive. As a result of these kinds of difficulties, the pendulum has begun to swing back from grass-roots lobbying.

Current lobbying methods in Washington, D.C. are a blend of direct and indirect methods of communication. Direct methods, such as personal presentation of viewpoints, are preferred by most lobbyists, but they cannot be relied on to get messages through to officials. Lobbyists turn to indirect methods when direct ones prove uncertain or unusable. In addition, lobbyists pay considerable attention to the problem of keeping their communication channels open. They employ various means of ingratiating themselves with officials to ensure that access will be speedy and direct when it is needed. Entertainment and bribery are not as widely used to ingratiate as is popularly supposed. They are not considered as rewards or favors by most officials, and bribery especially is dangerous to the careers of both officials and lobbyists (Milbrath 1963, chapter 13).

Lobbying occurs at all levels of government in the United States: city, county, and state as well as national. Research on state lobbying is scattered and uneven, while research on city and county lobbying is almost nonexistent. About three-fourths of the fifty states have a lobby-regulation or lobbyreporting law, but in most cases these laws are rather weakly enforced.

The scattered research evidence that exists on state lobbying suggests that lobbyists at the state level primarily employ direct methods of communication with officials. Competition for the time and attention of officials is less at the state level than at the national level. Consequently, state lobbyists do not find it so necessary to turn to the more expensive and less certain indirect methods that national lobbyists must employ.

Employing primarily direct methods, state lobbyists devote more time and resources to ingratiating themselves with officials and to keeping communication lines open. The reported incidence of entertainment and bribery is higher at the state level than at the national level. Furthermore, entertainment is considered more of a reward in state capitals than in Washington, D.C. Most state legislators do not establish residence at the seat of government, as most members of Congress do. Living in a hotel, the state legislator generally finds the prospect of spending an evening on a lobbyist's expense account much more appealing than does the overworked and overentertained member of Congress.

The study of lobbying

Lobbying is often studied within the context of some larger process. Four examples of such processes can be given. First, lobbying has been studied as a component of the legislative process (Herring 1929; Gross 1953). Second, it has been studied as a component of the process by which the total government arrives at a decision about a given bill or policy (Bailey 1950; Latham 1952; Bauer et al. 1963). Third, lobbying is a significant component of studies of the group process of politics (Bentley 1908; Truman 1951). Fourth, studies of the nature and activity of interest groups naturally incorporate lobbying activity as a part of total group activity (Garceau 1941; Kile 1948; Taft 1954; Eckstein I960; Potter 1961).

A much smaller proportion of studies give direct and primary attention to lobbying per se; these fall into three categories. First, Congressional investigating committees have developed valuable information on lobbying in Washington, D.C., usually with a view to possible legislative changes in the regulation of lobbying. Two prominent examples are the House of Representatives Select Committee on Lobbying Activities, which was active in 1949 and 1950 and was chaired by Representative Frank Buchanan of Pennsylvania; and the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Political Activities, Lobbying, and Campaign Contributions, which was active in 1956 and 1957 and was chaired by Senator John McClellan of Arkansas. Second, some persons regard lobbying as a threat to free government and believe the process hould be exposed from time to time to the glare of publicity. These journalistic exposes are usually more specific and polemical than general and scholarly; two book-length efforts are Crawford (1939) and Schriftgiesser (1951). Third, some recent scholarly work has focused directly on the lobbyist as political actor. Based on first-hand interview evidence, these studies describe the roles of lobbyists as mediators between groups and government and give detailed evaluations of methods and techniques used in the lobbying process (Milbrath 1963; Patterson 1963).

This last approach to the study of lobbying, deriving empirical data from the persons who practice lobbying, seems to shed most light on the subject. To date, such evidence is available only on Washington lobbyists and lobbyists in a few state governments such as Michigan (De Vries 1960) and Oklahoma (Patterson 1963). It is important that such evidence also be gathered in different national political systems. The role of lobbying in the policymaking process will be much better understood when comparisons using adequate and valid data are possible across national cultures.


The paucity of empirical data makes it difficult to give an adequate evaluation of the role of lobbying in the political process. It might be helpful, however, to list some of the utilities and disutilities of lobbying as a part of the political process.

One utility of lobbying is the service (primarily information) that lobbyists and lobby organizations provide to official decision makers. These services are often proclaimed as being free since they do not come directly out of the taxpayer's pocket. In another sense, however, the costs of lobbying are passed on to the public in the form of higher prices for goods and services. Since the public pays for the service in either case, the service should be evaluated according to its quality. The present system of lobbying services makes for considerable duplication and is clearly wasteful and time-consuming. Thus, even though officials make considerable use of this lobbying service, it probably could be obtained from alternative sources at a lower cost to the body politic.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for having alternative and duplicative sources of information and other services. An official who can turn to more than one source for information is less subservient to any one source. Dispensing with lobbying service probably would make Congress even more dependent on the executive, since Congress generally has fewer adequate information sources.

Perhaps the most useful service is the transmission and clash of viewpoints. This serves a creative function in alerting decision makers to all possible policy alternatives and mitigates a good deal of the waste and frustration involved in lobbying. Officials might find other sources for most services lobbyists provide, but they benefit quite clearly from the representational function that the lobbyist spokesmen for specific interests perform. Lobby groups and lobbyists were evolved as a part of government to fulfill this need for specific representation, a need that no other component of the political process is adapted to fill (Milbrath 1963, p. 313).

A major disutility of lobbying, in addition to waste, is its potential for corruption. Lobbyists usually represent persons seeking specific—therefore private—ends. Such private ends may coincide or be compatible with the public welfare, but, in many instances, they are not. An adequate political system reconciles these private ends to the public welfare, but it cannot do this if officials or lobbyists act corruptly. Corruption enters when the system responds to money or property instead of to votes alone; when personal pecuniary rewards are offered to or accepted by officials as they arrive at decisions; and when decisions are made in secret, thus foreclosing opportunity for dissent from the opposition.

Lobbying in Washington, D.C., has a relatively low incidence of corruption, not so much because of legal controls (which are relatively inadequate) but because of built-in systemic controls of the process. These systemic controls are integral to the total policymaking system. All of the actors in this system are interdependent; no man makes a governmental decision by himself. Furthermore, each actor is vulnerable; he can be punished by someone else if he does not perform according to expectations. Systems having interdependent, vulnerable actors naturally develop rules of the game so that actors may relate to one another with the least amount of friction. There is no room in the rules of such a system for corrupt or deceitful relationships between actors; the potential costs to other actors are too great. Actors who refuse to conform to these rules are readily ejected from the system (Milbrath 1963, part iv).

Lobbying is but one factor in the total policymaking process of any government. Seldom can the predominating influence on a policy decision be attributed to lobbying. Other influences—such as the desires of the voters, the cajolings of fellow officials, and the political philosophy of officials— generally outweigh the impact of lobbying. Yet lobbying makes a useful contribution by injecting the policy desires of special interests into the political system. The range of policy alternatives available to decision makers is probably broader, and the perceptions by officials of the potential impact of their decisions is probably clearer, because of lobbying activity. Assuming that this leads to better-informed and higher-quality decisions, the net contribution of lobbying to the political process is probably positive.

Lester W. Milbrath

[see alsoInterest Groups; Legislation; Political Financing; Political Group Analysis; Representation; Rules Of The Game.]


American Academy Of Political And Social Science 1958 Unofficial Government: Pressure Groups and Lobbies. Edited by Donald C. Blaisdell. Annals, Vol. 319. Philadelphia: The Academy.

Bailey, Stephen K. 1950 Congress Makes a Law: The Story Behind the Employment Act of 1946. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Bauer, Raymond A.; Pool, Ithiel de Sola; and Dexter, L. A. 1963 American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade. New York: Atherton.

Beer, Samuel H. 1958 Group Representation in Britain and the United States. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 319:130–140.

Bentley, Arthur F. (1908) 1949 The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures. Bloomington, Ind.: Principia.

Cherington, Paul W.; and Gillen, Ralph L. 1962 The Business Representative in Washington. Washington: Brookings Institution.

Crawford, Kenneth G. 1939 The Pressure Boys: The Inside Story of Lobbying in America. New York: Messner.

De Vries, Walter D. 1960 The Michigan Lobbyist: A Study in the Bases and Perceptions of Effectiveness. Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State Univ.

Eckstein, Harry H. 1960 Pressure Group Politics: The Case of the British Medical Association. London: Allen & Unwin; Stanford (Calif.) Univ. Press.

Garceau, Oliver (1941) 1961 The Political Life of the American Medical Association. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press.

Gross, Bertram M. 1953 The Legislative Struggle: A Study in Social Combat. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Herring, E. Pendleton 1929 Group Representation Before Congress. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Kile, Orville M. 1948 The Farm Bureau Through Three Decades. Baltimore: Waverly.

Lane, Edgar 1964 Lobbying and the Law. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Latham, Earl 1952 The Group Basis of Politics: A Study in Basing-point Legislation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press.

Milbrath, Lester W. 1963 The Washington Lobbyists. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Patterson, Samuel C. 1963 The Role of the Lobbyist: The Case of Oklahoma. Journal of Politics 25:72-92.

Potter, Allen M. 1961 Organized Groups in British National Politics. London: Faber.

Schriftgiesser, Karl 1951 The Lobbyists: The Art and Business of Influencing Lawmakers. Boston: Little.

Taft, Philip 1954 The Structure and Government of Labor Unions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Truman, David B. (1951) 1962 The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion. New York: Knopf.

U.S. Congress, House, Select Committee ON Lobbying Activities 1951 Report and Recommendations on Federal Lobbying Act. 81st Congress, 2d Session, House Report No. 3239. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, Senate, Special Committee TO Investigate Political Activities, Lobbying, And Campaign Contributions 1957 Final Report. 85th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Report No. 395. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Zeigler, Harmon 1964 Interest Groups in American Society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.


views updated May 21 2018


The process of influencing public and government policy at all levels: federal, state, and local.

Lobbying involves the advocacy of an interest that is affected, actually or potentially, by the decisions of government leaders. Individuals and interest groups alike can lobby governments, and governments can even lobby each other. The practice of lobbying is considered so essential to the proper functioning of the U.S. government that it is specifically protected by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The practice of lobbying provides a forum for the resolution of conflicts among often diverse and competing points of view; provides information, analysis, and opinion to legislators and government leaders to allow for informed and balanced decision making; and creates a system of checks and balances that allows for competition among interest groups, keeping any one group from attaining a permanent position of power. Lobbyists can help the legislative process work more effectively by providing lawmakers with reliable data and accurate assessments of a bill's effect.

The role lobbyists play in the legislative arena can be compared to that of lawyers in the judicial arena. Just as lawyers provide the trier of fact (judge or jury) with points of view on the legal issues pertaining to a case, so do lobbyists provide local, state, and federal policymakers with points of view on public policy issues.

Although lobbying as a whole serves as a checks-and-balances safeguard on the legislative process, individual lobbyists are not necessarily equal. Unlike voters, who each get one vote, lobbyists vary in their degree of influence. The level of influence a lobbyist has over the legislative process is often proportional to the resources—time and money—the lobbyist can spend to achieve its legislative goal. Some people think lobbyists in general have too much power. During his 1912 campaign for president, woodrow wilson remarked, "The government of the United States is a foster child of the special interests. It is not allowed to have a will of its own."

The term lobbyist has been traced to the mid-seventeenth century, when citizens would gather in a large lobby near the English House of Commons to express their views to members of Parliament. By the early nineteenth century, the term lobby-agent had come to the United States, where it was applied to citizens seeking legislative favors in the New York Capitol lobby, in Albany. By 1832 it had been shortened to lobbyist and was widely used at the U.S. Capitol.

In the early 2000s lobbyists practice their trade not only in the halls of the U.S. Capitol and the corridors of state legislatures, but also on playgrounds, in boardrooms, in manufacturing plants, at cocktail parties, and in retirement homes. Contemporary lobbying methods include political action committees, high-tech communication techniques, coalitions among groups and industries sharing the same political goals, and campaigns to mobilize constituents at the grassroots level. Lobbyists include schoolchildren who want to prevent their favorite neighborhood park from becoming a shopping mall, corporations who contribute to a particular legislator's campaign, lawyers who speak with legislators on behalf of their clients' business interests, cities who lobby the state legislature for changes in transportation laws, presidential aides who suggest new amendment language to congressional committee members, retired persons who want to save their government benefits, and many others. Each type of lobbyist attempts to win support for a particular point of view.

Samuel Ward, a well-respected lobbyist, was so successful at influencing legislators that in the mid-1800s Congress decided to investigate him. When questioned about the elegant dinners he orchestrated for politicians, the self-described King of the Lobby said, "At good dinners people do not talk shop, but they give people a right, perhaps, to ask a gentleman a civil question and get a civil answer."

Despite the noncorrupt success of lobbyists such as Ward, lobbyists during the mid-nineteenth century were often regarded as ethically questionable individuals. This reputation was enhanced whenever lobbyists abused their position with improper practices such as bribing members of Congress.

Although lobbying is specifically protected by the Constitution, numerous attempts have been made to regulate it—attempts that, not surprisingly, lobbyists have historically resisted. Congress began efforts to reform lobbying in 1907, when it banned campaign contributions from banks and corporations. In 1911 proposed restrictions on domestic lobbying were first considered, but these were not approved until 1946, when Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act (2 U.S.C.A. §§ 261, 261 note, 262–270 [1946]).

In 1954 lobbyists challenged the Regulation of Lobbying Act for being unconstitutionally vague and unclear. In United States v. Harriss, 347 U.S. 612, 74 S. Ct. 808, 98 L. Ed. 989, the Supreme Court responded by upholding the act's constitutionality but also by narrowing the scope and application of the act. The Court ruled that the act applies only to paid lobbyists who directly communicate with members of Congress on pending or proposed federal legislation. This means that lobbyists who visit with congressional staff members rather than members of Congress themselves are not considered lobbyists. In addition, the act covers only attempts to influence the passage or defeat of legislation in Congress and excludes other congressional activities. Further, the act applies to and restricts only individuals who spend at least half of their time lobbying.

According to the 1946 act, lobbyists to whom the law applies are required to disclose their name and address; the names and addresses of clients for whom they work; how much they are paid and by whom; the names of all contributors to the lobbying effort and the amount of their contributions; accounts that tally all money received and expended, specifying to whom it was paid and for what purposes; the names of all publications in which the lobbyists have caused articles or editorials to be published; and the particular legislation they have been hired to support or oppose. In addition, the act requires lobbyists to file registration forms with the clerk of the House of Representatives and the secretary of the Senate prior to engaging in lobbying. These forms must be updated in the first ten days of each calendar quarter for as long as the lobbying activity continues. Violation of the act is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or a jail sentence of up to 12 months, and a three-year prohibition on lobbying.

Although a number of lobbying statutes have been enacted that regulate special situations—such as lobbying by the agents of foreign governments, employees of holding companies, and firms affected by various federal shipping laws—the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act remains the only comprehensive law governing the practice of lobbying.

Critics of the 1946 act suggest that its effectiveness is limited, since it does not apply to a large part of the population that actually lobbies the government. In fact, in 1991 the general accounting office found that nearly 10,000 of the 13,500 individuals and organizations listed in a popular lobbyist directory were not registered under the 1946 act.

In 1995 Congress passed a law designed to close loopholes in the 1946 law by increasing lobbyists' accountability: the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-65, 109 Stat. 691). Under the new law, individuals who receive at least $5,000 in a six-month period from a single client are required to register with the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate, listing the congressional chambers and federal agencies they contacted, the issues they lobbied for, and how much money was spent on the effort. The reporting requirements also apply to organizations whose own employees lobby on their behalf and spend at least $20,000 in a six-month period on that effort.

Should Lobbyists Be Strictly Regulated?

Since the 1940s there has been continuing debate in the United States over the proper role of lobbyists in a democratic society. Lobbyists contend they offer a valuable service to legislators and government officials, providing information and raising questions about pending legislation or executive action. Critics argue that many lobbyists are nothing more than influence peddlers who seek political and legislative favors for their clients.

The perception that lobbyists and the interest groups they represent have corrupted the political process has led to state and federal legislation that regulates lobbyists. Nevertheless, a fundamental conflict remains over the extent to which government may regulate lobbyists and lobbying activities. Those opposed to restrictions on lobbying argue that the first amendment guarantees the right of citizens to petition the government for redress of grievances. Placing restrictions on lobbyists impairs this right. On the other side, critics of lobbyists assert that regulations are needed to preserve the democratic process and to ensure the legitimacy of government. Many people have become cynical about politicians and government, perceiving that only lobbyists have access to the halls of power.

Lobbyists believe that their activities are protected by the First Amendment. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never stated that there is a constitutional right to petition the government, supporters of lobbying note that several state supreme courts have acknowledged a fundamental right to do so. Therefore, any regulations on lobbying must be the least restrictive means to further a compelling state interest.

Lobbyists assert that regulations requiring them to name specific contacts made with legislative or congressional staff have a chilling effect and weaken relationships that have been built up over many years. Staff members are often under time pressure to find information on legislative issues, and depend on lobbyists to help them meet these demands. Disclosure of contacts with lobbyists forces staff members to refrain from making legitimate requests, out of fear that disclosure will produce political embarrassment.

Lobbyists argue they have been given an unflattering and absurd stereotype as influence peddlers. With over fourteen thousand lobbyists in Washington, D.C., representing every conceivable interest group, including environmental and consumer organizations, it is clear that there is a demand for lobbying. The size and complexity of the federal government have, in large part, driven the need for lobbyists to help define positions on issues of public policy. Moreover, on all issues of widespread concern, lobbyists are found on both sides, producing one more set of checks and balances that undercuts the simplistic picture of corruption and favoritism.

Lobbyists and their supporters maintain that intrusive regulations on lobbying can impair the democratic process. Laws that seek to identify contributors to lobbying groups may have a chilling effect on the exercise of citizens' rights. If made public, a contribution to an unpopular lobby can discourage similar contributions by others. Because many unpopular lobbies are small and poorly funded, discouraging even a few donors may significantly affect the support for a wide variety of viewpoints.

Supporters of strict regulation of lobbyists dispute these arguments. They contend that regulation is needed to prevent special interests from controlling the political process, to ensure ethical behavior on the part of lawmakers and government officials, and to enhance the public's confidence in the government. Numerous scandals have been linked to lobbying at the federal and state levels, providing ample justification for such regulation. Lobbyists have a place in the legislative process, concede many critics, but they must be prevented from using money and favors improperly to influence legislators and their staffs.

Critics of lobbying note that the courts have generally supported reasonable regulation of lobbying activity. This type of regulation does not prevent lobbyists from openly and appropriately communicating with government in regard to legislation. The regulation does restrict traditional practices such as giving legislators and staffs tickets to sporting events, paying for meals and entertainment, and underwriting golf and skiing junkets. These practices have contributed to the public perception that gifts and favors buy access to legislators and sometimes even votes.

Critics of lobbying also support regulation that forces the public disclosure of whom lobbyists represent. Registration of lobbyists is a minimally restrictive means of serving the public interest, yet it gives the public information on which interest groups are involved in pending legislative matters. Critics argue that lobbyists should not be permitted to work their influence in anonymity. The public has a right to know what interest groups have shaped legislation.

Despite the reforms legislated in the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, 109 Stat. 691, 2 U.S.C.A. § 1601 et seq., critics of lobbying argue that additional reform is needed. The act addresses disclosure, registration, and a ban on gifts and meals, but it leaves large loopholes, the largest being the ability of lobbyists to make large contributions to the campaign committees of members of Congress. The critics point out the irony of banning small gifts yet permitting senators and representatives to accept $5,000 donations for their campaign committees from political action committees controlled by lobbyists. Even more distressing, note critics, is the change this situation has produced in the dynamics between lobbyist and legislator: it is now the legislator who calls the lobbyist, asking for a political contribution.

Critics charge that the unceasing quest for campaign cash has distorted the political system. The only way to prevent lobbyists and the special interests they represent from dominating the legislative process is to establish the public financing of congressional campaigns. Once campaign contributions are no longer an issue, critics conclude, lobbyists will lose their last effective means of improperly influencing legislation.

Besides these federal regulations, states may separately enact their own regulations governing state lobbying. Most lobby restrictions involve reporting and registration provisions similar to those in place at the federal level.

further readings

Browne, Steven A. 1995. "The Constitutionality of Lobby Reform." William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 4.

Dekieffer, Donald. E. 1981. How to Lobby Congress: A Guide for the Citizen Lobbyist. New York: Dodd, Mead.

Doherty, Carroll J., and the "Inside Congress" Congressional Quarterly Staff. 1996. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report 54 (January 20).

Fuller, William P. 1993. "Congressional Lobbying Disclosure Laws: Much Needed Reforms on the Horizon." Seton Hall Legislative Journal 17.

Government Accounting Office. 1991. Federal Lobbying: Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 Is Ineffective. July. Washington, D.C.: Government Accounting Office.

Hancock, William A., ed. 2000. Special Study for Corporate Counsel on Corporate Lobbying Activity. Chesterland, Ohio: Business Laws, Inc.

Jacobs, Jerald A., ed. 1989. Federal Lobbying. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs.

Lane, Edgar. 1964. Lobbying and the Law. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

"Legislative Reform." 2003. San Diego Law Review 40 (winter): 67–114.

Luneburg, William V., ed. 1998. The Lobbying Manual: A Compliance Guide for Lawyers and Lobbyists. 2d ed. Chicago: Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice, American Bar Association.

Mack, Charles S. 1989. Lobbying and Government Relations: A Guide for Executives. New York: Quorum Books.

Schram, Martin. 1994. "Shakedown." Mother Jones (September–October).

Stokeld, Fred. 2000. "IRS Explains Rules on Lobbying by Public Charities." Tax Notes 88 (July 10): 168–9.

Stone, Peter H. 1996. "Shining a Brighter Light on Lobbyists." National Journal. (February 5).

Tollison, Robert, and Richard Wagner. 1988. Smoking and the State: Social Costs, Renting, and Public Policy. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.


Election Campaign Financing.


views updated May 18 2018






Lobbying is the process by which an organized interest communicates its concerns and preferences to governmental policy makers in order to influence a policy decision. Lobbyists are the individuals who directly attempt to persuade policy makers to take a particular action. They may be full-time employees of a corporation or an interest group, but are often contract lobbyists hired by an interest group. Additionally, governmental employees act as legislative liaisons for their agencies and at the state level a small percentage of lobbyists are volunteers. Regardless of the extent to which lobbying persuades policy makers, a topic debated by scholars, lobbying serves instrumentally at several stages of policy making. Therefore, understanding the process of lobbying complements knowledge of how policy is made.


The first use of the term lobby seems to have been in the mid-seventeenth century when the large anteroom near the English House of Commons floor became known as the lobby. It was a public room in which members of Parliament could be easily approached by individuals seeking favors, called lobby agents. In the early 1800s in the United States those who petitioned government officials in lobbies or common areas were called lobbiers and later lobbyists. This label transferred to their petitioning activity, termed lobbying. Members of Congress did not have private offices until after 1900 so influence seekers commonly buttonholed them in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Similarly, state legislators could be easily waylaid in the halls and anterooms of their capitol buildings as private offices did not appear in some states until the mid-1970s.


In the United States, lobbying plays a role in all three branches of government, though legislative lobbying gains the most attention in scholarship and in the media. In Congressional and state legislatures, lobbyists provide drafts of bills to sympathetic members who introduce them, given the need to show policy entrepreneurship and in order to lower the cost of bill preparation by staff. Later, in the committee stage, lobbyists focus mostly on rallying their base rather than persuasion. They typically contact two kinds of legislators: those who are sympathetic ideologically to their client and those who represent a constituency in which their company or group has a strong presence. Similarly, on a floor vote, lobbyists again focus mostly on their base, but if necessary they try to persuade fence-sitting legislators to gain sufficient support for the bills passage.

Lobbyists provide technical expertise about the issue and expected effects of the policy as well as political intelligence about the electoral consequences of a members vote. The most important means of presenting information are testimony at committee hearings and contacting legislators directly, tactics used by 95 percent of Washington lobbyists. Lobbyists can more easily contact legislators if they represent an organized interest whose members constitute a significant portion of the legislators constituency. Mobilizing a groups members to contact a legislator, known as grassroots lobbying, has become an important tool in politics. Lobbyists often control another resourcemoneyin the form of Political Action Committee (PAC) campaign contributions, which may help secure access to legislators and, some allege, influence floor votes. Political scientists caution that many forces besides money influence a congresspersons vote, and detecting moneys direct impact on voting has been limited.

Lobbying also extends to the federal executive branch and the U.S. court system. Starting with the presidency, since 1974 the Office of Public Liaison has served as the White Houses primary means of interaction with organized interests. Interests gain access to prominent officials, and the White House receives information and lobbying support from organized interests. It is not always clear what the interests gain from this approach. More transparently, interests lobby bureaucrats in the regulatory process. Whenever Congress enacts legislation, an agency must write rules for implementation, a process open to public comments and hearings, in which lobbyists regularly participate. Agencies pay attention to comments because regulations can be legally challenged for a variety of reasons.

Indeed, legal challenges and influencing the courts are also part of the domain of lobbying; however, lobbyists cannot directly contact judges about rulings, so in this approach organized interests use indirect lobbying techniques. The first technique is lobbying during judicial selection. At the federal level lobbyists simply encourage senators to vote for the confirmation of judicial nominees favorable to their groups concerns, while in the thirty-eight states where judges stand for election, interest groups get more directly involved in campaigning. A second means is actual litigation either through an organizations defending itself or sponsoring a test case. A final means of influencing courts is by submitting amicus curiae briefs on cases with which the organized interest is not involved as a litigant, yet has a policy interest. These briefs advance legal and social arguments that may not be raised by the litigants. When seemingly technical rule-making by bureaucrats or rulings by courts affect policies of interest to their clients, lobbyists attempt to influence these decisions.


In regulating lobbying by organized interests, the primary focus at both the federal and state levels has been on registration and public visibility, rather than restricting activity. Lobbying is protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 was the first law to require lobbyists at the national level to register, but court rulings substantially narrowed the range of groups that had to register. The Lobby Disclosure Act of 1995 established a meaningful registration requirement for nearly all organizations engaged in direct lobbying. In 2005 36,689 individuals lobbied Congress, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, an independent campaign finance Web site. States began oversight of lobbying in the 1960s, primarily by requiring lobbyist registration and disclosure of expenditures. In the 1990s many states tightened their rules, often imposing gift bans, so that in the early 2000s state laws are substantially more stringent than federal law. The Center for Public Integrity reported that 47,000 organized interests were registered to lobby in state capitals in 2004, employing more than 38,000 individual lobbyists.

SEE ALSO Interest Groups and Interests; Pressure Groups


Federal Lobby Directory. PoliticalMoneyLine. http://www.fecinfo.com.

Gordon, Neil. 2005. State Lobbyists near the $1 Billion Mark. Center for Public Integrity. http://www.publicintegrity.org.

Lowery, David, and Holly Brasher. 2004. Organized Interests and American Government. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Safire, William. 1993. Safires New Political Dictionary. New York: Random House.

Virginia Gray

Lobbying Disclosure Act (1995)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Lobbying Disclosure Act (1995)

Thomas Susman

Apart of national politics since the beginning of the Republic, lobbying is a paid activity designed to influence decision making by government officials through some form of communication. The Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995 (P.L. No. 104-65, 109 Stat. 691), which replaced an inadequate and unenforceable 1946 statute, made accessible to the public, the media, and Congress information on who lobbies for whom, what issues are involved, and how much is being paid or received by the lobbyist in the process. Although the new statute continues to have shortcomings, it strikes a balance between, on the one hand, the need to encourage and foster vigorous advocacy in fulfillment of the public's right to petition the government and, on the other, the need to inhibit unethical behavior and promote transparency in what has long been viewed as an easily corrupted system.


Historically, lobbying has too often been associated with corruption and special interests. The poet Walt Whitman wrote of "bribers, compromisers, lobbiers, spongers ... the freedom-sellers of the earth." The Crédit Mobilier scandal of the 1870s was a classic example of corrupt lobbying during the Ulysses S. Grant administration. The scandal involved a member of Congress, on the payroll of the Union Pacific Railroad, who gave shares of the railroad's stock to legislators and cabinet members to protect the company's interests in the transcontinental project.

Public outcry soon called for regulating lobbyists. Whereas state regulation of lobbying dated back to the 1870s, efforts by Congress to regulate lobbying began in the 1850s but did not reach fruition until 1946. States have used three approaches to regulating lobbying. One involved defining and prohibiting abusive lobbying practices; a second was to require registration of lobbyists. The third, used in tandem with registration, involves disclosure of expenditures, subject matter, and targets of lobbying.

The 1946 Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act attempted to incorporate the latter two approaches, but its weaknesses were exposed by a 1953 Supreme Court opinion, United States v. Harriss. That ruling upheld the constitutionality of the act but construed it in such a way as to render implementation meaningless and enforcement impractical. Most significant was the Court's imprecise and overly narrow definition of "lobbying" activities, which included only direct communications with members of Congress and excluded preparation, research, and all forms of grassroots activities (indirect lobbying to mobilize constituencies into pressuring government officials), as well as contacts with congressional staff and executive branch officials. It took Congress over forty years to replace the mortally wounded Lobbying Act with the LDA.


From the 1950s through the mid-1990s, scores of bills and dozens of hearings were focused on reforming the inadequate and unenforceable 1946 statute. Following the Watergate scandals in the 1970s, both the House and Senate approved lobbying reform bills. Both bills were substantially stronger than the existing law but differed vastly from each other. Business, public interest, and civil liberties groups opposed them for being overly intrusive. The differences were never resolved, and the bills died in conference committee.

In 1994 history repeated itself, with both houses of Congress approving bills but none reaching the White House. (This time the House and Senate conferees resolved their differences, but the final product was killed by a Senate filibuster) A revised bill was introduced the following year and, principally through the efforts of Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, was shepherded through Congress and onto the president's desk. It was signed by President Bill Clinton on December 19, 1995 to take effect the first day of 1996.


The LDA requires registration with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives when a lobbyist is employed or retained to make lobbying contacts for a client if income earned or incurred expenses for lobbying activities exceed certain thresholds. A person does not become a "lobbyist," however, unless employed or retained by a client for compensation for services including more than one lobbying contact, where the lobbyist's activities for that client amount to 20 percent or more of the time that person spends on services for that client during a six-month period. Lobbying the executive branch, as well as Congress, is covered, and lobbyists must file semiannual reports detailing issues worked, agencies or houses of Congress lobbied, and money received or expended within certain ranges.

The statute establishes a number of significant exclusions and exceptions. Traditional legal representation before federal agencies is excluded, for example, as is lobbying by religious organizations and by state and local governments. The most glaring gap in coverage involves grassroots or indirect lobbying, which remains wholly outside the scope of the statute.

One method of LDA enforcement is through civil penalties of fines up to $50,000. This can occur only if a demand for compliance by one of the congressional offices where reports are filed, goes unheeded.


When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the 1946 Lobbying Act through Harriss, it recognized that Congress had a need to know more about "special interest groups seeking favored treatment while masquerading as proponents of the public weal." The Court viewed the disclosure requirement of the 1946 act as a reasonable vehicle for obtaining "a modicum of information from those who for hire attempt to influence legislation or who collect or spend funds for that purpose."

Two decades later, the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) sustained the disclosure requirements of the Federal Election Campaign Act against the challenge that disclosure would unconstitutionally burden the exercise of free speech. The Court found sufficient governmental interests to overcome the constitutional challenge: the law was designed to provide the public with information, deter corruption, and gather data needed to detect violations.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never directly ruled that lobbying is a protected activity under the First Amendment, lower federal courts and state supreme courts in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s readily reached that conclusion. Restrictions on lobbying, therefore, would be subjected to a "strict scrutiny" standard. That standard demands both that a strong governmental interest be shown to justify any burden imposed on free speech and that the burden be related to the governmental interest to be served. The LDA, however, would surely meet that test under Harriss and Buckley.


The number of lobbyists registering under the LDA has climbed each year, surpassing 14,000 in 2002. Even so, because the law is narrowly focused, this number vastly underestimates the number of persons involved in activities designed to influence federal governmental decision making in the legislative and executive branches.

The law has proved user-friendly for lobbyists, who may now submit registrations and reports to the relevant congressional offices electronically. Although occasional amendments have been proposedespecially ones designed to bring grassroots lobbying within the LDA's reporting requirementsnone is likely to be approved soon.

The LDA is a rational, responsible tool for opening lobbying activities to public scrutiny. Despite the statute's absence of strong enforcement measures, there appears to be near universal compliance with the LDA among lobbyists in the nation's capital.


Luneburg, William V., ed. The Lobbying Manual: A Compliance Guide for Lawyers and Lobbyists, 2d ed. Chicago: American Bar Association, 1998.

Potter, Trevor, ed. Political Activity, Lobbying Laws and Gift Rules Guide, 2d ed. Little Falls, NJ: Glasser Legal Works, 1999.

Vanderbeck, Mary Kathryn. Comment, "First Amendment Constraints on Reform of the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act." 57 Texas L. Rev. 1219 (1979).

Core Principles

Thomas Susman

The core principles of the Lobbying Disclosure Act can be found in the congressional findings accompanying that statute in section 2:

The Congress finds that

  1. responsible representative Government requires public awareness of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence the public decision-making process in both the legisla tive and executive branches of the Federal Government;
  2. existing lobbying disclosure statutes have been ineffective ... ; and
  3. the effective public disclosure of the identity and extent of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence Feder al officials in the conduct of Government actions will increase public confidence in the integrity of Government.


views updated May 23 2018

lob·by / ˈläbē/ • n. (pl. -bies) 1. a room providing a space out of which one or more other rooms or corridors lead, typically one near the entrance of a public building.2. a group of people seeking to influence politicians or public officials on a particular issue: members of the anti-abortion lobby | [as adj.] lobby groups. ∎  [in sing.] an organized attempt by members of the public to influence politicians or public officials: a recent lobby of Congress by retirees.• v. (-bies, -bied) [tr.] seek to influence (a politician or public official) on an issue: it is recommending that booksellers lobby their representatives | [intr.] a group lobbying for better rail services. DERIVATIVES: lob·by·ist / -ist/ n.


views updated May 18 2018


Lobbying is an attempt to influence the course of government action through persuasion or gifts to legislators. The phrase derives from the advocates' practice of waiting in the lobby of government buildings, such as the U.S. House of Representatives, to talk to lawmakers as they come and go. Lobbying, as an activity, may be as old as democracy, but the phrase itself seems to have originated in the early- to mid-nineteenth century in Washington, D.C.

From its earliest usage, the term lobbying implied activity that was somewhat illegal or unsavory, including bribery of public officials. Even today when laws strictly limit the types of gifts that lobbyists may give legislators, critics of lobbying decry the large campaign contributions that interest groups are able to give to candidates to influence their future actions. Lobbyists themselves defend their profession. They contend that they perform a vital public service by bringing valuable information about public issues to light.

Lobbying is often performed by major law firms on behalf of clients or by nonprofit groups concerned with a single issue. There have been hundreds of well-organized groups that lobby both in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals. These groups represent almost every conceivable special interest, from business and environmental groups to those concerned with abortion, foreign trade, or tax reform. Some of the better known groups that lobby legislators on issues of interest to their members are the National Rifle Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the National Association of Realtors. Lobbying has had a profound influence on legislative actions.

See also: Special Interest Group


views updated May 23 2018

lobby in the UK, any of several large halls in the Houses of Parliament in which MPs may meet members of the public. The verb to lobby, meaning to seek to influence a politician or public official on an issue, derives (originally in the US) from the practice of frequenting the lobby of a house of legislature to influence its members into supporting a cause.
lobby correspondent in the UK, a senior political journalist of a group receiving direct but unattributable briefings from the government.


views updated May 11 2018

lobby †(perh.) monastic cloister XVI; passage or corridor attached to a building XVI (spec. in the House of Commons XVII). — medL. lobium, lobia (see LODGE).


views updated May 29 2018


those who try to influence legislators, collectively; a body of lobbyists.