Lobby Definition

What Is a Lobby?

The term lobby refers to a group of people who band together and try to influence politicians and other individuals in public office. A lobby is typically formed to influence government officials to act in a way that is beneficial to the lobby's or an industry's best interests, either through favorable legislation or by blocking unfavorable measures. The term is also used as a verb to describe the influence that a group of individuals exerts over other people.

Key Takeaways

  • A lobby is a group of people who band together and try to influence people in public office and politicians.
  • The term may also allude to the action of exerting influence on public officials.
  • Lobbies are formed to influence officials to act in a way that is beneficial to the lobby's best interests, either through favorable legislation or by blocking unfavorable measures.
  • Lobbyists are commonly held in a negative light because they are seemingly able to circumvent the democratic process.
  • Direct lobbying tries to influence government officials while the aim of grassroots lobbying is to influence public opinion by asking individuals to contact their elected officials about certain issues and legislation.

How Lobbies Work

The term lobby came into use in the American political landscape in the 1800s in U.S. statehouses in the northeast. The very first lobby in the United States Congress was the room outside the chamber, which was one of the easiest places to run into House Representatives. This was generally where people were able to meet with politicians, have their say, and try to persuade them to vote a certain way.

The term's meaning began to shift as people gave up meeting in this physical lobby. As mentioned above, a lobby is a group of individuals or companies that use their influence over public officials. It also means the action of trying to exert influence over other individuals. Lobbyists are particularly active and well-funded by certain industries, notably pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, insurance, aerospace and defense, utilities, banks, and real estate.

Lobbies and lobbyists are paid substantially by their clients to sway the decisions of lawmakers to pass legislation for the industries they serve. Lobbies are often seen negatively because of the influence they exert and the amount of power they hold. That's why they can circumvent the democratic process and conduct what most people call back-office deals.

It may not seem fair to the average citizen that an interest group can seemingly buy a vote, but that is how it works in politics. Despite anti-lobbying rhetoric spewed by many candidates on the campaign trail, the candidate, if elected into office, does little or nothing to put an end to special interest money. In fact, these politicians often expose themselves as hypocrites when they accept donations from lobbies.

Although they are generally looked down upon, some lobbies can have a positive impact on society, such as those tied to environmental groups, education, and human rights.

Special Considerations

Lobbyists who walk around Washington D.C. and state capitals may serve a positive role in illuminating or clarifying issues that are germane to industries or professions, but they are generally viewed pejoratively as special interest groups.

Practical-minded people should note that competing interests in a democratic process are natural. Where lines may be drawn, however, are in cases that are considered harmful to society by a majority of Americans.

For instance, there is a debate about whether guns and tobacco fit into this category. The same goes for processed foods, sugary drinks, and expensive drugs. Some do not like the lobbies that push their agendas. Also, if a lobby simply outspends a competing interest to get what it wants, the question of fairness arises.

There are lobbies, on the other hand, that are seen as positive where the public good is concerned. Some of them are even considered essential. These lobbies are tied to environmental groups, education, and human rights, to name a few. These lobbies may not be as well-funded as the industries and interest groups that oppose them, but at least they have a voice.

Many citizens liken the actions of lobbies to bribery because they may promise politicians financial support and backing during their political campaigns in exchange for votes on legislation.

Types of Lobbying

Lobbying can take on a few different forms. The two most common are:

  • Direct Lobbying: This type of lobbying involves any direct communication and/or contact with a government official and/or a member of a legislating body. The purpose of this type of lobbying is to use this contact to influence legislation. For instance, special interest groups on both sides of the abortion debate may donate funds to politicians to try to influence legislation on the issue.
  • Grassroots Lobbying: Rather than approach government officials directly, people involved in grassroots lobbying try to influence the public with respect to specific forms of legislation. This requires educating people and urging them to contact their elected representatives by phone or mail to sway them to their side. For example, healthcare advocacy groups commonly send emails to individuals on their mailing lists asking them to contact government officials about rising healthcare costs.

Example of a Lobby

The National Rifle Association is one of the most well-known lobbies in the United States. The organization was founded in 1871. The organization had roots in the promotion of shooting sports and hunting. Over time, it expanded and became an advocacy group for gun owners around the country.

The NRA calls itself a "major political force" whose effectiveness is due to several factors, including:

  • A dedicated membership base
  • Avoiding issues that may divide its base
  • The support of law enforcement
  • A commitment to crime and punishment

The organization committed about $1.59 million to its lobbying efforts in 2022.

Article Sources
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  1. United States House of Representatives. "Lobbying in the Lobby."

  2. NRA. "A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NRA."

  3. U.S. Department of Justice. "Effect of the NRA (National Rifle Association) As a Citizens Special Interest Group Concerned With the Criminal Justice System."

  4. Statista. "Lobbying expenditure of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States from 1998 to 2022."