What Is a Lobby?

The term lobby refers to a group of people who band together and try to influence people in public office and politicians. 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.

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.

Although no one holds meetings in this physical lobby anymore, the term's meaning has shifted. 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 substantial amounts of money by their clients to sway the decisions of lawmakers to pass advantageous legislation for the industries they serve. Because of the influence they exert and the amount of power they hold, they are often seen in a negative light. That's because lobbies can often circumvent the democratic process and commonly conduct what most people call back-office deals.

Put simply, many citizens liken their actions to bribery, promising politicians financial support and backing during their political campaigns in exchange for votes on legislation.

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.

Special Considerations

Lobbyists crawling around Washington D.C. and state capitals may serve a positive role in illuminating or clarifying issues germane to industries or professions, but they are generally viewed pejoratively as special interest groups. But practical-minded people should note that competing interests in a democratic process is natural. Where lines may be drawn, however, are in cases that are considered harmful to society by a majority of Americans.

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.

For instance, there is a debate about whether guns and tobacco fit 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—even as essential—where the public good is concerned. These lobbies are tied to environmental groups, education, and human rights, to name a few. These lobbies won't be as well-funded as the industries and interest groups that oppose them, but at least they have a voice.