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What is “lobbying”?

Historically, it is the process of petitioning the government to look at a perceived injustice or to intervene in special causes.

How should lobbying be defined today? That, argue critics, is up for grabs.

Dating back to the Magna Carta written in 1215, the right "by the people" to petition government was a principle reaffirmed in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence and later in the Bill of Rights.

Petitioning to hear individual grievances was a treasured right in the young American democracy, which gave most citizens a potential active role in how they were governed.

Yet, the sense that those early Americans once had - of having a direct voice in local or national politics - is now arguably a quaint thing of the past.

As some of the most famous lobbying scandals over the past century suggest, real and lasting influence of government has primarily become the purview of banks, Wall Street firms, big oil, the pharmaceutical industry, and other corporate giants enlisting the aid of professional lobbyists or Political Action Committees or PACs.

While defenders of the practice argue that it is a basic right for corporations to look after its own interests by lobbying government, critics maintain that without stricter regulation lobbying is at best loaded with ethical dilemmas and, at worst, rife with opportunities for scandal and corruption.

Enforcing regulations on lobbyists

The Onion - Are Politicians Failing Our Lobbyists?

As one story goes, the term "lobbying" originated during the early 19th century, when influence peddlers commonly milled around the lobbies of local government offices, statehouses, or the US capitol waiting to buttonhole a particular politician.

By 1876, lobbying had become so common in Washington that the House of Representatives finally approved a resolution requiring lobbyists to register with the House Clerk. The resolution only applied to that session, however, and except for a handful of states that actually outlawed the practice of lobbying (with no effective enforcement), little else was done.

A more serious look at the corrupting influence of lobbying in Washington DC didn't take place until the 1930's, when Senator Hugo Black of Alabama revealed that hundreds of telegrams - urging the blocking of a bill that would have broken up utility holding companies - were found to have been actually sent - gasp! - by lobbyists impersonating constituents. The scandal resulted led directly to the Public Utilities Holding Company Act featuring an amendment requiring full registration of all company agents doing business in Washington.

10 years later, following World War II, Congress approved the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act (FRLA) of 1946, with a call for tighter controls over lobbyist registration and disclosure, but did little to regulate funding activity or political contributions.

In contrast to the dreamy-eyed patriotism of the war years, the American public were ready for another hard look at how government was run by money and influence.

Lobbying in the modern era

Heading into the 1950's, Hollywood was ready with a wildly successful film comedy, "Born Yesterday", a morality tale for a more cynical generation.

Although the film's plot was seen as wildly unrealistic (in which a crooked lobbyist is given a lesson in good government by a ditsy but lovable girlfriend), the film was a nationwide hit. It also spawned millions of conversations at kitchen tables around America that asked an interesting and vital question, "...who really runs Washington?"

It would be 50 years before popular culture caught up with Capitol Hill, as the gaping loopholes of the 1946 act were finally closed with the passage of the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) in 1995. The LDA was the most effective legislation to date in forcing public disclosure of the identity and extent of the efforts of paid lobbyists in Washington.

Yet critics countered that even more steps were needed in reforming modern lobbying practices including, in particular, a closer look at the "revolving door" of US politicians who increasingly depart government service for more lucrative positions as lobbyists for big business.

Lobbyists, lobbyists everywhere...

Today, more than 230 former congressmen turned lobbyists walk the halls of Capitol Hill attempting to influence the way current congressmen vote. Over the past five years, the number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled to nearly 35,000, and the yearly amount spent on lobbying has increased twofold from a billion to $2.3 billion.

However, the United States is not alone in government being inundated with lobbyists. By contrast, corporate lobbyists in the UK and France are less transparent and less regulated than those in the US.

Throughout the EU, the numbers of lobbyists have also grown in recent years with similar calls for stricter control by critics (who don't hold out any hope for real reform happening anytime soon.)

Worldwide, a generally universal attitude toward politicians often casts them as pliant actors who are all too willing to cut back room deals with power brokers and influence peddlers.

This view, however, doesn't readily take into account what politicians need to stay in power — and therein still lies the foundations of any democracy. Money and influence may play a large part in government, but when it comes to popular support politicians often ignore the will of the people at their peril, especially if another election is looming.


More about lobbying and lobbyists around the Web:

So is a modern democracy "of the people, by the people, and for the people" still possible?

A more compelling question beckons with the 2010 ruling by the US Supreme Court — granting unbridled influence by corporations over the election process. That is, have special interests turned self government into a wholly-owned subsidiary of big business?

Around the Web, find out more about the pros and cons of the current process of influencing government and how it works, along with information on lobbying reform efforts, plus more on the top lobbyists currently influencing US policy, and legislators who currently profit the most from major corporate contributions:

Open - Major clearinghouse of information on current lobbying efforts by major US corporations with a database of facts searchable by top PACs and lobbyists, major contributors by amounts, individual legislator and party affiliation and other related criteria, including news headlines and expert analysis.

Bill Moyers, David Stockman on "Crony Capitalism"

The Center for Public Integrity
- Major watchdog Investigative research and reporting on public policy issues in the United States and worldwide.

Lobbying - Wikipedia - Complete historical overview with an examination of lobbying practices in the US and Europe including related references and resources.

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