Clearing Misconceptions About Lobbying

The practice of lobbying has been around since the founding of this country. Contrary to popular belief, the term “lobbying” did not originate from lobbyists waiting around in lobbies to get the attention of politicians. It actually dates back even further to the mid-1600’s when the lobbies of the chambers of the British Parliament were highly engaged in political wrangling.

By the early 1800’s, the word “lobbyist” referred to all those who talked to lawmakers on behalf of special interests. By the late 1800’s, the lobbying industry was in full swing. During this period, a man named Sam Ward became known as the “King of the Lobby.” He would influence members of Congress through fancy dinners and fine wines, but was later convicted of bribery.

Current perceptions of lobbying

Outside of government relations, it’s not well-known how lobbyists engage on behalf of their clients. It is a behind-the-scenes kind of job that takes a lot of time, patience, and frequent communication. The rare times it does make it to the news is when something major like a scandal happens. However, dishonest practices are not the norm and do not make up a majority of the industry. As with any industry, wrongdoing is what attracts the most attention.

Since news headlines that revolve around lobbying are usually negative, it has led to the common misperception that lobbyists use bribery and other unfair practices to sway politicians in favor of big corporations. One major scandal that came out was in 2006 when power lobbyist Jack Abramoff was charged with fraud, embezzlement of funds from clients, and bribery. Not long after, further perpetuating negativity around lobbying, President Obama announced during his 2008 presidential campaign that he would not take contributions from federally registered lobbyists.

Another common perception is the “revolving door” within the lobbying industry, which is the idea that there is a common back-and-forth movement of staff between the private and public sector. Essentially, federal employees working in politics switch to roles as lobbyists, strategists and consultants, and vice versa, lobbyists become staff in the government. This creates the impression that lobbying mainly benefits certain private sectors, creating policies that give little thought to public interest.

It’s not actually a wild jungle

The lobbying industry is in fact regulated by the federal government and has been for the last half century.

In 1945, Congress passed the Lobbying Registration Act. Lobbyists lobbying the federal government were required to register with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives and file quarterly reports. 

The 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) was an upgrade to the previous act following a bribery scandal. The purpose of the LDA is to shine a light on the federal lobbying activities of business entities, nonprofit organizations, and paid lobbyists. It requires an organization that’s lobbying to file a report every quarter disclosing how much it spent on lobbying activities, describe the issues that were lobbied for, and which of their lobbyists participated in them. 

As other major scandals such as the Jack Abramoff case comes out, the regulations in place are revisited and revised for tighter scrutiny.

What lobbyists actually do

Like many other professions, lobbyists can be hired by any organization large or small. They serve their clients, whether they be non-profits, an individual, or a conglomerate. Professionals who lobby can go by any title, including “Government Relations Professional,” “Public Policy Advocate,” “Public Affairs Director,” “Consultant,” etc.

In our interview with seasoned public affairs professional Craig Chick, he explains that lobbyists are essentially sales people selling a public policy issue. They are the experts of the subject matter they represent, and either they approach the lawmakers or the lawmakers approach them for factual information and context. 

While it is often the case that clients approach lobbyists to establish a working relationship, sometimes lobbyists are the ones to take the initiative. For example, Craig Chick helped stop a massive corporation from monopolizing a certain industry by approaching the businesses that would be hurt by this move, lobbying for them, and winning to maintain competition in that market. Lobbyists don’t just do the bidding of special interests, as with the case mentioned, there are those who will put the public interest first when they notice an imminent threat.

As mentioned earlier regarding the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the lobbying industry is indeed regulated by the federal government. Like doctors or lawyers, they are bound to a code of ethics that’s enforced within the industry. The code of ethics of the Association of Government Relations Professionals asserts that a lobbyist should conduct lobbying activities with honesty and integrity: “If a lobbyist determines that the lobbyist has provided a public official or other interested person with factually inaccurate information … the lobbyist should promptly provide the factually accurate information to the interested person.”

It may take some time to repair the reputation of lobbying, especially in the U.S. where there is decreasing faith in our politicians and lobbyists. There is not an abundance of information on day-to-day lobbying, but we are working to change that. Lobbyists are experts that inform lawmakers on specific issues. The clients and issues they represent are all across the spectrum, and they are federally-regulated and held to high standards by associations such as the Association of Government Relations Professionals and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.