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What Do Lobbyists Do?

The Role of Lobbying in American Politics


Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Jack Abramoff is among the most famous Washington lobbyists in modern political history. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News

Lobbyists are people who are paid to influence policy-makers at the local, state and federal levels. They represent special interests in the decision-making process in the legislative and executive branches of government. Lobbyists play an important if not controversial role in American politics.

There are more than 11,000 lobbyists registered at the federal level. Lobbying is a multibillion-dollar industry.

Who Qualifies as a Lobbyist?

At the federal level, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 defines who is and who isn’t a lobbyist. States have their own regulations on lobbyists who is and isn’t permitted to seek to influence the legislative process in their legislatures.

At the federal level, a lobbyist is defined by the law as someone who earns at least $3,000 over three months from lobbying activities, has more than one contact he is seeking to influence, and spends more than 20 percent of his time lobbying for a single client over a three-month period.

A lobbyists is someone who meets all three of those criteria.

How Can You Spot a Lobbyist?

At the federal level, lobbyists and lobbying firms are required to register with the Secretary of the U.S. Senate and the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives within 45 days of making official contact with the president of the United States, vice president, member of Congress or certain federal officials.

The list of registered lobbyists is a matter of public record.

Public Disclosure

Lobbyists are required to disclose their activities trying to persuade officials or influence policy decision at the federal level. They are required to disclose the issues and legislation they attempted to influence, among other details of their activities.

Examples of Lobbyists

Members of Congress often become lobbyists after leaving office because they understand how the legislative process works and have important contacts in Washington, D.C. Some notable examples are former Senate Majority Leader and onetime Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole and former U.S. Rep. Robert Livingston of Louisiana, who was supposed to succeed Newt Gingrich as House speaker by resigned after it was discovered he had an extramarital affair.

Lobbying Firms

The federal government defines a lobbying firm as an entity that employs one or more lobbyists.

Lobbying Groups

Trade associations and special interests often hire their own lobbyists. Some of the most influential lobbying groups in American politics are those that represent the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the National Rifle Association.

Loopholes in Lobbying Law

The Lobbying Disclosure Act has been criticized for containing what some feel is a loophole that allows some lobbyists to avoid having to register with the federal government. Specifically, for example, a lobbyist who does not work on behalf of a single client for more than 20 percent of his time does not need to register or file disclosures. He would not be considered a lobbyist under the law.

The American Bar Association has proposed eliminating the so-called 20-percent rule.

Portrayal of Lobbyists in the Media

Lobbyists often are painted in a negative light because of their influence over policymakers.

In 1869, a newspaper described the Capitol lobbyist this way: “Winding in and out through the long, devious basement passage, crawling through the corridors, trailing its slimy length from gallery to committee room, at last it lies stretched at full length on the floor of Congress-this dazzling reptile, this huge, scaly serpent of the lobby."

The late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia described the problem with lobbyists and the practice itself.

"Special interest groups often wield an influence that is greatly out of proportion to their representation in the general population," Byrd said. "This type of lobbying, in other words, is not exactly an equal opportunity activity. One-person, one-vote does not apply when the great body of citizens is under-represented in the halls of Congress compared to the well-financed, highly organized special interest groups, notwithstanding the often plausible objectives of such groups."

Lobbying Controversies

During the 2012 presidential race, Republican hopeful and former House speaker Newt Gingrich was accused of lobbying but not registering his activities with the government. Gingrich claimed he did not fall under the legal definition of lobbyist, even though he did seek to use his considerable influence to sway policymakers.

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in 2006 to charges of mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy in a broad scandal that implicated nearly two dozen people, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

President Barack Obama came under fire for taking what appeared to be contradictory approaches to lobbyists.

When Obama took office after winning the 2008 election, he imposed an informal ban on hiring recent lobbyists in his administration. "A lot of folks see the amounts of money that are being spent and the special interests that dominate and the lobbyists that always have access, and they say to themselves, maybe I don’t count," Obama said later.

Still, lobbyists are frequent visitors to the Obama White House. And there are many former lobbyists who were given jobs in the Obama administration. They include Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Benefits of Lobbyists

Former President John F. Kennedy described the work of lobbyists in a positive light, saying they are "expert technicians capable of examining complex and difficult subjects in clear, understandable fashion."

“Because our congressional representation is based upon geographical boundaries, the lobbyists who speak for the various economic, commercial and other functional interests of the country serve a useful purpose and have assumed an important role in the legislative process," Kennedy said.

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