Introduction

You’re waiting in the lobby of your government’s legislative building. Maybe you plan to convince your representative to vote yes on stricter environmental laws with the binder of facts you’ve acquired. Perhaps you’re not afraid to spend a chunk of change to ensure the bank reforms don’t pass. You might have even helped draft a new bill that would radicalize disability laws. Regardless, you wait in the lobby. As soon as your representative walks out of this meeting, you’re going to make sure they hear your voice and, with enough luck, see the situation your way. 

The Explanation

Lobbying can look very different here in America, depending on who’s doing the lobbying. One thing is certain, though: lobbying is how people try to influence government officials into making policies they approve of.

Definition of Lobbying

Lobbying, simply put, is trying to convince those in power to approve or eliminate particular legislation. “Those in power” can be members of Congress or local officials in your hometown. 

How It Works

Anyone, from a single young person to a wealthy group of elites, can lobby. Some people band together under particular causes and focus only on legislative issues relevant to their causes. These groups are referred to as special interest groups or merely interest groups. Interest groups can form over issues as broad as education or as specific as gun laws. Other people are specifically hired by groups or corporations to lobby on their behalf. These people are called lobbyists, although the term can be applied broadly to anyone who lobbies. 

Just like there are many people who lobby, there are many ways those people can apply pressure on elected officials. One big way people influence officials is by gathering facts and data and presenting them in succinct, persuasive formats. Officials are voting on a variety of very different topics that they likely aren’t experts on. Providing them with well-researched data can help them make a well-researched decision and also increase the likelihood they’ll take your perspective. Some interest groups even go so far as to draft legislation for officials on these topics.

Of course, money can influence people, too. While direct bribes are illegal, making hefty campaign contributions isn’t. There are always ways to get around the restrictions, and officials know that if they want continued financial support, they better vote how their donors want them to.

Why Care?

Lobbying has generally been regarded as protected under the Constitution. After all, the First Amendment states that an individual has a right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” However, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been regulations proposed and passed, namely in an attempt to make lobbying more transparent.

The idea behind lobbying is that there should be lots of groups advocating for their various causes. With so many voices, the argument goes, it becomes less likely for any one group to gain control. Furthermore, lobbying encourages individuals to participate, making them a more active player in their government. However, that isn’t how current lobbying works. A few major interest groups have a disproportionate amount of power. Money buys research and votes, which leads to legislation that is made specifically for particular interest groups.

This doesn’t mean that the average person shouldn’t get involved in politics – far from it. Find groups whose causes you believe in and lobby for them. If the group isn’t particularly wealthy, it can still be powerful if enough people band together under it. Positive change can occur, provided you do your part to enact it.

    Learn More

    1. Alemanno, Alberto. (2016, Jun). Citizen Lobbying: How Your Skills Can Fix Democracy | Alberto Alemanno | TEDxBrussels [Video]. Tedx Talks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqNf2OPdu8c.
    2. Campos, Nauro F. and Francesco Giovannoni. “Lobbying, corruption and political influence.” Public Choice, vol 131, Nov 2007, pp 1-21. Doi: 10.1007/s11127-006-9102-4.
    3. Gilens, Martin. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780691162423.
    4. Hall, Richard L. and Alan V Deardorff. “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” American Political Science Review, vol 100, issue 1, Feb 2006, pp 69-84. Doi: 10.1017/S0003055406062010.
    5. Potters, Jan and Frans van Winden. “Lobbying and asymmetric information.” Public Choice, vol 74, Oct 1992, pp 262-292. Doi: 10.1007/BF00149180.

    Think Further

    1. What are some interest groups you’ve heard of? Which ones do you think hold the most sway?
    2. Why do you think it can be difficult to reform lobbying at the federal level?
    3. What are some other ways people can lobby for change?

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