In the first quarter of 2015, Washington’s top 10 lobbying groups spent a combined $64 million-plus on influencing federal policy. Congressional changes are providing increased opportunities for lobby groups to use political influence as a means to create productive legislation, and with an increase in lobby dollars being spent it is timely to remember both why lobbying is legal, and why lobbying is important for a productive government.
Why Is Lobbying Legal?
Lobbying is often misinterpreted or criticized as bribery, which it is not. Lobbying is a practice performed by either individuals or organizations whereby public campaigns (which are legally registered with the government) are undertaken to pressure governments into specific public policy actions. The legality of lobbying comes from the Constitution and from our participatory democracy.
First Amendment Protection
Often overlooked in the many rights protected by the 1st Amendment is the right to lobby. While never expressly using the term “lobby,” the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is specifically noted. This translates into modern times as a right to lobby, a right addressed in the U.S. Constitution.
Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995
By rule of law, the Lobbying Disclosure Act also provides for the legality of political lobbying. Concerning both the legislative and executive branches of the government, this act defines what constitutes a lobbyist and her required government registration, what lobbyist actions consist of, and how lobbyists must comply in order to avoid penalties. The Lobbying Disclosure Act was enacted to ensure that lobbying is publicly registered. While acknowledging the importance of lobbying, the act allows the public to evaluate any undue influences that may be affecting decision making in the government.
In addition to the legal framework that protects lobbying, lobbying is further supported as an inherent part of participatory democracy. For our government to succeed and protect the rights of its citizens the citizens must participate; lobbying is a way for our citizens to do that. Lobbyists represent the interests of citizens who do not have the opportunity or access to represent them personally to the government. Through lobbying, their interests are still heard. Economist Thomas Sowell provides that governments do not work without lobbying: “Reform through democratic legislation requires either ‘public consensus or a powerful minority lobby.’”
Lobbying Affects Everyone
Government actions do not pertain to specific individuals; all laws are applicable to all citizens. This fact further legalizes lobbying as opposed to bribery. Bribery provides for an instance of favoritism to an individual or a group, but lobbying does not specifically ask for special treatment. Instead, lobbying is a way to influence legislative action that affects all citizens.
Why is Lobbying Important?
Lobbying is an important lever for a productive government. Without it, governments would struggle to sort out the many, many competing interests of its citizens. Fortunately, lobbying provides access to government legislators, acts as an educational tool, and allows individual interests to gain power in numbers.
Lobbying provides access to government legislatures that no single individual could possibly hope to achieve. By grouping individual goals together into a lobbying aim, lobbyists represent the interests of many and are more likely to be heard by legislatures than if they came bearing the concerns of one voter. With the number of tasks and matters required of a legislature ever-growing, populaces need lobbying to bring issues front and center, otherwise, the government can fall into an “out of sight, out of mind” trap.
Not only does lobbying bring access to issues, but any issue also brought to a legislature’s attention will be a focal point of a legislature’s constituents. Recognizing this, governments will be more likely to address a lobby’s interests knowing there is a large swell of support backing this interest.
In addition to providing introductory access to government, lobbyists apply continued pressure on issues. Once an issue has been brought been to the attention of government legislature, it can easily be superseded by any other issue that comes to light without lobbyist pressure. The presence of lobbyists in Washington allows for constant communication, and continued support of specific interests.
Power in Numbers
As alluded to above, lobbyists serve an important purpose in aggregating the interests of many individual constituents. Any individual can have a cause, but with over 10,000 bills introduced to the U.S. Congress over every two-year session for an example, it is close to impossible for one voice to be heard, let alone actioned upon. Lobbyists can represent many voices, and in addition, their size and singular focus allow for research and fact-checking needed to bolster arguments.
For perspective on the tremendous size of lobby groups, the total dollars spent in 2014 on lobbying interests totaled over $3.2 billion dollars and the total number of lobbyists employed reached almost 12,000. The money spent on lobbying in 2014 is not an anomaly. 2014 matched 2013 in terms of total spend, and lobbyists in 2015 have already registered $.8 billion in lobbying spend.
Educational Function of Lobbying
Citing once again the over 10,000 bills presented to Congress over a two year period, and understanding that this is simply one example of a government being tasked with a tremendous amount of legislative material, it is very easy to appreciate that no one person in government can be an expert in everything.
Lobbying helps to cover any gaps in knowledge. With each issue brought to legislative attention, lobbyists present research and facts about their issue and then try and persuade the government into action. Lobbyists additionally will bring the best, most thorough knowledge and expertise to an issue, as the issue they lobby for is their sole interest and reason for employment. Policy decisions made with the best possible information are a benefit to both lobbying groups and a legislature’s constituents on the whole.
The Bottom Line
Lobbying is an integral part of a modern participatory government and is legally protected. In the U.S., the right to lobby is protected by both the 1st Amendment and the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, and additionally by the inherent need for participation in our democratic environment.
The legal framework in support of lobbying notwithstanding, lobbying should continue to play a role because of its many benefits. With lobbying, personal interests are aggregated into lobby groups; strengthening their voice, constant pressure is applied to government legislatures whose attention can often be pulled in various directions, and finally with lobbying, legislatures are provided with expert knowledge of a subject matter they may not normally be educated enough on to provide for their constituents.