Lobbying refers to the activities of individuals, acting either for themselves or on behalf of others, that attempt to influence political decision makers. Lobbying as an activity is usually informal, that is, communication between lobbyists and political decision makers is seldom public. Lobbying has come to be synonymous with so-called special interests, the implication being that lobbying and lobbyists somehow work against "the will of the people." The term has also gained pejorative connotations, because of lobbying's close association in the past with such high-pressure and corrupting tactics as bribery . Generally, lobbyists now employ lower-pressure tactics—such as presenting information, research, and expert opinion—that reenforces their view on a particular subject or piece of pending legislation. Somewhere in between are lobbying tactics such as campaign contributions and other persuasive but nonthreatening techniques.
Seeking to persuade political decision makers to act in particular ways has always been part of the human condition. Unique to the United States, however, is the height to which this persuasive process has been institutionalized. Two factors influencing this institutionalization of lobbying practices are the guarantee of freedom of expression found in the Constitution and the belief that elected politicians—be they presidents, senators, representatives, or county drain commissioners—are elected to represent the views of the electorate. Thus they are open to influence by the electorate. In fact the term "lobbying" originated from the practice of people attempting to persuade or influence legislators in the lobbies of voting and deliberative chambers.
In the United States early lobbying efforts were aimed almost exclusively at state and federal legislative bodies. Bribery was not unheard of. The first congressional investigation of lobbies was in 1913 against the National Association of Manufacturers. In 1935 as the result of a scandal over a public utilities bill, all utility lobbyists were required to be register. By the end of World War II, however, there were two major shifts in lobbying activities. Because of various lobbying scandals, tactics such as bribery became much less common and t6bbyists began resorting to more low-pressure strategies. The post-World War II era saw a tremendous growth in the power and activities of federal administrative agencies; following the lead of President Franklin Roosevelt, it became commonplace for the executive branch to propose federal legislation. As a result of these shifts lobbyists began to form closer relationships with the executive branch of government and the federal administrative bureaucracy.
The need for regulatory mechanisms to control lobbyist activities paralleled the growing pervasiveness of lobbying throughout the federal government structure. As a result, the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act became a component of the Legislative Reorganization Act (LRA) of 1946. This was the first comprehensive piece of federal legislation aimed at the regulation of lobbying. This act prescribed rules governing who must register as lobbyists and the reporting of their receipts and expenditures. The act was soon challenged in the federal court system and by 1953 had been declared unconstitutional. The government, however, carried the case to the Supreme Court. Defendants' lawyers claimed the act violated First Amendment guarantees of free speech and the right to petition while being too vague to satisfy due process. In a 5-3 ruling, however, the high court upheld the LRA.
The LRA nevertheless came under almost immediate criticism for being vague, largely unenforceable, and without compliance. Despite mounting criticism from many circles it was not until the early 1990s that major new regulatory legislation became viable. In 1993 the independently wealthy political gadfly H. Ross Perot vociferously attacked the lack of effective regulatory mechanisms on lobbyists. In response to criticism by Perot and others, the Senate in 1993 passed a bill that would have required thousands of lobbyists to register while concurrently disclosing who they worked for, how much they were being paid, and to what ends they were lobbying. Gifts to senators and their staff worth $20 or more would also require disclosure. In 1994 the House passed similar legislation but included a ban on gifts and meals. Republicans, however, soon killed a House-Senate compromise bill, claiming it would inhibit lobbying at the grassroots level. In 1995, after much political maneuvering, Congress passed a subsequent compromise bill. Known as the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995 it was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
The 1995 act defines a lobbyist as any person (or entity) who for financial (or other) compensation has been retained by a client to make more than one lobbying contact on the client's behalf. A lobbying contact is an oral, written, or electronic communication with a "covered individual" regarding legislative or administrative policy-making or regulatory matters. Individual lobbyists who expect to receive more than $5,000 in compensation in a six-month period, or organizations that expect to spend more than $20,000 on lobbying in a six-month period, must disclose their activities. Organizations that use their own employees as lobbyists and spend more than $20,000 in a six-month period are also required to report their activities. The definition of a covered individual is quite broad and includes political appointees, senators, representatives, the president, and executive branch officials, as well as their respective staffs and employees. The act requires lobbyists to disclose twice a year the issues they lobbied on, the amount of money they spent, and the specific federal agencies and chambers of Congress they had contact with. Under the act, registrants are generally the lobbyist's employer rather than the individual lobbyist. Self-employed individuals, however, are also required to register if they qualify as lobbyists under the act. There are 19 exceptions to what constitutes a lobbying contact, including such things as subpoenas and contacts requiring compliance as specified by statutes, regulations, etc.
The LDA does not specifically define grassroots lobbying nor does it explicitly dismiss its authority over grassroots lobbying. Legislative history, however, seems to imply that grassroots lobbying does not constitute lobbying contact or lobbying activity as defined in the act. What is evidently important under the act is not the activity per se, but rather the driving force behind the activity. For example, whether or not an organized letter-writing campaign is considered to be grassroots lobbying is largely dependent on how the campaign was orchestrated or inspired. For instance, a speech made to the general public during which the speaker implores members of the audience to write letters to government officials advocating a particular position would probably be regarded as grassroots lobbying and thus not subject to LDA compliance. A letter-writing campaign by employees of a corporation that was instigated by the employer, however, would probably not be considered grassroots lobbying and thus would be subject to LDA compliance.
Despite these regulatory measures, lobbyists are still quite active in Washington—especially when they have deep pockets. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the oil industry, which is affected by most government policies and decisions, spent $62 million in lobbying efforts in 1997. As large as this sum was, big oil nevertheless came in fourth behind the telephone lobby, which spent $62.1 million; insurance concerns, which spent $65.9 million; and the pharmaceutical and health products industry, which disbursed $74.4 million in its lobbying efforts.
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