How Lobbying Works in the United States

Lobbying gets a bad reputation; with most, the word connotes ideas of corruption or collusion. In reality, lobbying is a mechanism by which issues or causes are communicated to those in elected office (i.e., members of Congress). The nature of said causes, good or bad, is a matter of perspective. Lobbyists are often criticized, but in reality, these individuals are just the champions of a cause.

Lobbying is paid for by corporations, labor unions, associations, universities, philanthropic organizations, environmental groups, and even strong-willed citizens. Citizens who petition the government or contact members of Congress to influence their vote or opinion are acting as a lobbyist. One such example is Peter Gagliardo, a New York resident who is currently urging lawmakers to include a symbol on driver’s licenses and state ID cards for individuals with intellectual disorders. His son with autism recently turned 18, and he is increasingly concerned with what could happen in a routine stop if police encounter unexpected communication or physical cues. As a result of his efforts, a member of the NY State Assembly has drafted a bill, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expressed interest. So, before you judge the profession, remember if you have written your Congressperson trying to voice your favor or opposition of a law, you too are a lobbyist.

Far more common than a citizen with a viral cause are the approximately 11,000 professional lobbyists working at the state, federal, and county-level. The profession takes on many roles, advertising, promotion, and advocacy, with the ultimate goal of securing funding, changing or passing legislation, or opposing legislation.

Day-to-day government relations looks a lot more like research, legislative analysis, congressional hearings, and meeting with government officials and clients. Most lobbying is still done face-to-face; think hosting luncheons and other events, making the right introductions, developing or strategizing on coalitions, and advocating for bills in Congress.

Despite perceptions, lobbying is, in fact, a regulated industry, with necessary reporting, restrictions, and regulations. The two principal federal regulations that govern the industry are The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 and The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. Both Acts aim to bring accountability and transparency to the industry with registration at the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the US Senate, increased financial disclosure requirements especially around funding, restrictions on gifts, and filing requirements.

In addition to federal regulations, each state has requirements lobbyists must follow. The information required on the state level varies, but standard disclosure details include contact information, client information, lobbying certifications compensation for services, a list of the state agencies the lobbying firm will attempt to influence, and lobbying subject matters. You can find each states rules and regulations on their Secretary of State’s website.

Like it or not, lobbying is a major component of our political system that traces back to 1790, when the first lobbyist was hired. It’s been responsible for shaping laws, regulations, structuring funding, and maybe most importantly, the perception of legislation. Moving forward lobbying won’t lose its place in the system of government, but we anticipate a shift towards more visible ROI and a bit more transparency in the industry as a whole.

To get connected to a lobbyist through the Retaen network, schedule a meeting with us here or email Anna Beauregard at