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“The difference between you trying to convince your congressman to do a certain thing and a lobbyist doing it is that the lobbyist isn’t working on their own behalf and the lobbyist likely has a ton more money than you do."
Among the most influential and controversial figures in all of Washington, DC are political lobbyists. A lobbyist generally uses connections and money to influence policy decisions on behalf of interest groups, industries, corporations and other organizations. Many people consider lobbyists – and the money they wield – a symbol of everything that’s wrong in politics.
Yet, the ability to lobby and petition politicians is enshrined in the United States Constitution and is considered one of the fundamental rights of an American. Without that right, the US is no longer a representative democracy. That fact can make the debate over political lobbyists confusing and even a bit muddled.
To understand what lobbying is and why it’s such a heated topic, TMS spoke with Jeffrey Johnson, a lawyer and a managing editor for FreeAdvice.com. Johnson, who has been involved in political activism in Maryland, Texas and North Carolina, also helps explain Washington, DC’s “revolving door” of lobbyists.
What is political lobbying?
“Lobbyists are basically people who work for an organization or interest,” Johnson explains. “On behalf of their employer, [lobbyists] attempt to influence political action in that employer’s favor. The right of citizens to petition the government is enshrined in the first amendment, and technically anyone has the right to lobby politicians in their own interest.”
Which, Johnson clarifies, is not to say that lobbyists are just concerned citizens: “The difference between you trying to convince your congressman to do a certain thing and a lobbyist doing it is that the lobbyist isn’t working on their own behalf and the lobbyist likely has a ton more money than you do.
“They can’t just pay the legislator to advocate for their position, but what the lobbyist can do is spend their client’s money in ways that benefit legislators more or less directly. For example, the lobbyist can spend thousands of dollars of their client’s money to pay for a fundraiser and invite wealthy potential donors, each of whom may pay US$10,000 to attend. That money would go into a senator’s reelection fund.”
As Johnson puts it, “If this seems like bribery to you, you’re hardly alone.”
Why is lobbying legal?
As Johnson states, the right to petition a politician is an essential right, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” [emphasis added]
A political lobby is thus a group of citizens coming together to petition the government. That group can take the form of a massive corporation or industry – for instance, the National Rifle Association is frequently referred to as “the gun lobby” – but political lobbying doesn’t require financial motivations.
“Not all lobbying involves getting money or other donations for politicians,” Johnson explains. “Some lobbyists organize on a grassroots level to petition legislators. For example, a lobbyist could gather statements and signatures from dozens or hundreds or thousands of constituents to encourage action.”
Even when it does involve financial matters, Johnson adds, it must be reported and disclosed. So, while political lobbying may seem distasteful to outsiders, it is, theoretically, regulated.
Who are the big names in political lobbying?
Political lobbying is often discussed in terms of the aforementioned “gun lobby” or, perhaps even more so, “Big Tobacco.” Infamously, it was lobbyists working for tobacco producers that worked so effectively for years to prevent the US government from officially declaring cigarettes a health risk, long after the dangers had been documented by medical science.
Yet, while that type of industry-specific lobbying is common, the big names in lobbying are often firms that don’t have household names.
The website Open Secrets has documented the biggest spending lobbying firms for every year since 1998. In 2020, the top five are Akin, Gump et al (US$25,360,000), Brownstein, Hyatt et al (US$23,285,000), BGR Group (US$15,140,000), Holland & Knight (US$13,400,000) and Squire Patton Boggs (US$13,390,000).
Since 1998, Akin, Gump has spent the most money (US$681,660,000) in lobbying efforts. Of their more than 240 clients, among the top this year are Amazon.com (US$120,000), beer manufacturer Anheuser-Busch (US$310,000), tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris International (US$280,000) and insurance giant Liberty Mutual (US$220,000).
At the same time, a company can hire multiple lobbying firms to represent its interest. For instance, Facebook spent US$16,710,000 in 2019 on lobbying efforts. Those funds were split between over two dozen different firms and were used to petition on behalf of specific bills in Congress and to donate to the campaigns of various candidates.
Why should we care about political lobbying?
Political lobbyists and their influence are frequent topics of concern, especially among people who worry that there is too much money in politics. Critics of the practice say lobbying corrupts the political system by ensuring politicians only listen to the groups with the deepest pockets, generally major corporations and global industries.
Another concern is what is known as the “revolving door” of politics: politicians who, once they’ve left office, land themselves lucrative jobs as lobbyists.
“This makes sense,” Johnson says, “as having connections in DC is an essential part of lobbying, but it also creates a perverse incentive for politicians to work with lobbyists. Knowing that a certain firm will hire you if you lose reelection (for many times more than your government salary) might make it easier to push for a position that’s in that firm’s interest rather than constituents.”
As Johnson explains, some of the biggest lobbying firms – including Akin, Gump and Squire Patton Boggs – generally employ former politicians and federal employees.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a one-time Democratic candidate for president, has put forth a plan to address the revolving door and end corruption in Washington, DC. Her plan uses two points to directly address lobbying: “Restrict the ability of lobbyists to enter government jobs” and “Make it illegal for elected officials and top government appointees to become lobbyists — ever.”
While Warren released her plan as part of her since-ended presidential campaign, it continues to be an issue she looks to address as a sitting senator. On her website, Warren is currently advocating for an “excessive lobbying tax” that would apply to “every corporation and trade organization that spends over $500,000 per year lobbying our government.”
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