Bribery vs. Lobbying: An Overview

Bribery and lobbying are often conjoined in the public mind: Critics of lobbying suggest that it's bribery in a suit. While both seek a favorable outcome, the two remain distinct practices. Bribery is considered an effort to buy power; paying to guarantee a certain result; lobbying is considered an effort to influence power, often by offering contributions. The main difference is bribery is considered illegal, while lobbying is not.

Key Takeaways

  • Lobbying is the organizing of a group of like-minded people, industries, or entities to influence an authoritative body or lawmaking individual, often through financial contributions.
  • Bribery involves the payment of something—either money or goods or an intangible favor—in the subversion of normal practices, for gain or special treatment, or in order to get an advantage.
  • In the U.S., lobbying is legal, while bribery is not.
  • Bribery is an effort to buy power, while lobbying is just an effort to influence it; but admittedly, the distinction between the two can be opaque.

Lobbying

Lobbyists try to shape laws, legislation, and public policy to the benefit of the group or entity that employs them. Their campaigns (which are legal) can sometimes be public ones (or fed to the media to influence the public), but they more typically target politicians, elected officials, legislators, and government agency employees; the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill and in state capitals too.

Lobbyists are required to register with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House, and to file disclosures of their activities and expenditures, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.

Lobbyists—the term refers to both individuals or organizations—have existed as long as governments; they traditionally have been considered "information givers," a valuable source of facts and data, though admittedly in support of their cause or industry. Lobbyists systematically build up support for their causes, over years and decades. Often, they fund a study, survey, or research that might sway a politician's opinion or their constituency's opinion.

More often, though, they act more directly; by giving money. Increasingly, lobbyists are ensuring contributions are made from the grassroots up to influence decision-makers at all stages. These contributions aren't directly paid to any official or lawmaker. But they might go to that person's election or re-election campaign—purchase advertising, finance a fundraiser—or to a politician's favorite cause or charity or hometown/state project. There's a tacit understanding, if not an outright quid pro quo: We supported you and your interests; in return, you support us and ours—by voting for (or against) this bill, by funding that subsidy, by extending this exemption, or by loosening that regulation.

But if they have existed forever, why are lobbyists reaping such scorn of late? It's partly due to their higher profile. In the past, they tended to operate quietly, behind the scenes, and away from the public eye. In the last few decades, however, they have become bigger and bolder, operating quite openly as a profession. (in Washington D.C., "K Street" is shorthand for the lobbying field, since so many are centered there, the way "Wall Street" in NYC symbolizes the finance industry). Not a month goes by without the public announcement of some former politician joining a lobbying firm, leveraging their knowledge of how the government machine works.

And the money involved—both what lobbyists make and what they disburse—just keeps increasing. The total spending on lobbying has grown from $1.44 billion in 1998 to $3.53 billion in 2020. The top three spenders in 2020, according to OpenSecrets.org, were the National Association of Realtors ($84.1 million), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($81.9 million), and the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America ($25.9 million).

How Lobbyists Work

For example, cigar lobbyists have campaigned for cigars not to be grouped with cigarettes. They lobbied for years to avoid government scrutiny and to propagate an image that cigars were not harmful, when in fact cigars are as dangerous as cigarettes.

Or take the financial sector. Securities and investment firms spent $104 million in 2020. This amount is in line with prior years. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, 2010 and 2011, this sector was spending $103 million annually. Most of this money was spent to ensure that the government did not regulate the hedge fund industry.

The impact of lobbying is massive. It affects policy by influencing policymakers and therefore citizens, rather than just individuals. Whether made directly by entities or through professional lobbying firms, the contributions—this "special interest money" as it's imaginatively known—causes lobbying to be associated with bribery.

Bribery

In contrast, a bribe usually occurs on an individual level. And it is anything but public. A bribe giver usually gives an offer of money "under the table" in order to subvert standard processes. This could be paying a tax officer to clear reports with under-reported revenue or sending goods without an invoice.

The bribe may be in the form of a donation or favor in kind. A company's purchase manager may award an order to a supplier in return for undue favor in the form of money, against his company's policy of awarding orders based on criteria of quality and price. Public officers are offered bribes to enable evasion of taxes and the corresponding liabilities at an individual or company level.

However it's done, a bribe—along with its cousin, the kickback—results in an unfair advantage for the bribe giver. Bribes may seem like small amounts compared to lobbying contributions, but therein lies the problem: They often cannot be accounted for.

Bribery is the first step of subversion of the economic system. Slowly but steadily, a corrupt, parallel system is formed. It creates inefficiencies and obstacles in the short term; over time, it erodes the economic foundation of the country, hurting the most vulnerable members of the society and filling the middle class with a sense of hopelessness and cynicism.

Real World Examples of Corporate Bribery

In 2020, airplane manufacturer, Airbus, agreed to pay $4 billion in fines over accusations of bribery and corruption that dated back 15 years. The company reached a plea bargain with prosecutors in Britain, France, and the United Kingdom.

The scandal involved using third-party business agents to bribe government officials and airline executives, as well as resolving Airbus's violation of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

Special Considerations

Bribery seems to have no morally redeeming features at all: It is a direct purchase of favor or advantage. Lobbying, on the other hand, is also used by civil rights and environmental support groups in their battles against commercial and for-profit interests. In that sense, lobbying becomes a critical and important tool in influencing public policy and evening the scales between different groups.

But all too often, the border where lobbying's influence ends, and outright bribery begins, can be hard to fathom.

What Is the Difference Between a Gift and a Bribe?

The primary difference between a gift and a bribe is that a gift comes with no expectations, meaning, no strings attached. A gift is given freely out of goodwill as opposed to with the intention of receiving something in return to better the position of the giver. Often, a bribe can be directly related to some future action whereas a gift, not necessarily so.

What Kind of Crime Is a Bribe?

Bribery is considered to be a felony. This applies to both the bribe giver and the bribe receiver. If convicted of bribery, an individual most often has to complete a state prison sentence of at least one year. Commercial bribery cases are often classified as misdemeanors.

What Are the Three Main Types of Bribes?

The three main types of bribes are active bribes, passive bribes, and facilitation payment. Active bribery is when the individual that gives the bribe performs the offensive act. Passive bribery is when the receiver of the bribe performs the offensive act. Facilitation payments are made to retain business or for other improper actions.

What Are Examples of Lobbying?

Lobbying examples include meetings and discussions with government representatives, influencing legislation by negotiating the details of a bill, and pushing for presidential vetoes.