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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.
Forms of Lobbying and Their Roles
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 bill’s 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 member’s 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 legislator’s constituency. Mobilizing a group’s members to contact a legislator, known as grassroots lobbying, has become an important tool in politics. Lobbyists often control another resource—money—in 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 congressperson’s vote, and detecting money’s 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 House’s 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 group’s concerns, while in the thirtyeight states where judges stand for election, interest groups get more directly involved in campaigning. A second means is actual litigation either through an organization’s 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.
- Federal Lobby Directory. Political Money Line http://www.politicalmoneyline.com/http://www.politicalmoneyline.com/.
- Gordon, N 2005. State Lobbyists near the $1 Billion Mark. Center for Public Integrity. https://publicintegrity.org/state-politics/influence/hired-guns/state-lobbyists-near-the-1-billion-mark/http://www.politicalmoneyline.com/
- Lowery, David, and Holly Brasher. Organized Interests and American Government. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Safire, W 1993. Safire’s New Political Dictionary. New York: Random House.
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