9.2 Lobbying: The Art of Influence

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What is lobbying?
  2. How do lobbyists gain access to public officials?
  3. What is grassroots lobbying?
  4. How do lobbyists attempt to influence Congress, the president, the bureaucracy, and the courts?
  5. How is lobbying regulated?

Interest groups employ lobbyists to protect and advance their interests. Lobbyists do this through lobbying: informing, persuading, and pressuring policymakers to support the group’s objectives.

The more policies the government proposes, the more lobbyists become involved. In response to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Obama administration proposed to overhaul the regulation and increase oversight of the financial system. This generated a bonanza of business for lobbyists. Lobbyists represented banks, mutual funds, hedge funds, and credit card companies as well as companies in manufacturing, retail, and service who could be affected by changes in the laws.

The Lobbyists

There are as many as eighty thousand lobbyists in Washington, DC (Wright, 1996). Some of them go through a revolving door between government service and lobbying. Former presidential aides are prominent and powerful among them. More than two hundred lobbyists are former members of Congress. Others have worked for congressional committees or the agencies they now lobby. These former public servants have expertise, access, and contacts among policymakers.

This move from public service to private enrichment, cashing in on connections, is grist for the news media. The New York Times reported that Wall Street’s financial firms had more than 125 former members of Congress and congressional aides working to limit the policies proposed by the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress to overhaul and intensify regulation of the industry. They included Richard H. Baker, a former chairman of a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee. As president of the hedge funds’ Managed Funds Association, Baker led the fight to prevent government oversight of hedge funds. The association spent $3.7 million in 2009 lobbying federal officials (Lichtblau, 2011).

The Times later reported that the government agencies (such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Office of Thrift Supervision, and the Federal Reserve) that were deciding on the at least 243 regulations to implement the new, 2,300-page banking law were being lobbied by 148 of their former employees, who had recently been hired away from the agencies. Asked by the Times’ reporter if he had an edge in lobbying, one of them replied, “The answer is yes, it does. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to justify getting out of bed in the morning and charging the outrageous fees that we charge our clients, which they willingly pay” (Lichtblau, 2011).

Lobbyists also take positions in the federal government. They bring expertise from their jobs and usually take a pay cut. They are familiar with and may be sympathetic to their industry’s policy agenda. Before he became President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card was General Motors’ chief lobbyist in Washington, DC.

What Lobbyists Do

Lobbying is done by members of the group’s or association’s staff, a law or lobbying firm that specializes in representing clients before government, or both. In addition to lobbying, firms may offer such services as public relations, research, polling, direct-mail, and grassroots campaigns.[1]

Gaining Access

Lobbyists need access to policymakers in order to make their cases. But public officials are not obliged to meet with lobbyists, take their telephone calls, or look at their e-mail messages. Access is granted when the policymaker has received campaign contributions from the group, is sympathetic to its interests, or the group’s policy objectives are important to constituents back home.

Ensuring access often involves building relationships. Lobbyists attend elected officials’ fund-raisers and receptions and hand over campaign checks from their groups. They meet policymakers informally at dinners, golf games, sporting events, parties, and weddings. They enable lawmakers to fly on corporate jets at discounted rates and then join them for the ride. However, legislation has limited some of these benefits.

Providing Information

After being granted access, lobbyists try to convince public officials to support or accept or, at least, not oppose the interest group’s policy positions. They provide three types of information. First, they provide information about current or proposed laws and regulations that are relevant to the group’s interests. Second, they supply political information about whether the policymakers’ constituents would be affected by a new policy and whether public opinion would support or oppose a policy change. Third, they offer technical information about the implications and possible effects of policy proposals.

Lobbying Congress

Some interest groups encourage their members and others to contact their legislators on behalf of a policy position the group advocates. This is called grassroots lobbying. Hired firms use data banks, telephone banks, and direct mail to contact people likely to be responsive to the group. Messages are crafted through focus groups and surveys. All this costs money. So grassroots lobbying is mainly done by amply funded interest groups on major public policy issues like the minimum wage.

Lobbyists may have extensive involvement with members of Congress and their staff in personal, committee, and leadership offices. Some lobbyists intervene from the start of the congressional policymaking process, encourage or discourage the introduction of proposed legislation, and try to influence its contents. They may draft a bill and work with congressional staff to sign up cosponsors. They may help organize congressional hearings, decide on the timing of the hearings, identify people to testify, write testimony for some of them, and provide questions for legislators to ask witnesses (Kersh, 2002).

Lobbyists may be involved with the subcommittee or committee markup of a bill. They may attempt to modify its language, add amendments, and work to have the bill approved or defeated by subcommittee or committee vote. They try to persuade members to vote for or against the bill on the floor.

These activities take place in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as the House-Senate conference committee held to reconcile and resolve differences between bills passed by each chamber, and in the final House and Senate votes.

Lobbyists can also try to influence the amount of money Congress appropriates for agencies and programs. After the US Department of Justice brought an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in October 1997, the company called upon lawmakers to approve the lowest possible budget for the department. Its objectives were to punish the Justice Department and reduce its enforcement funds.

Lobbying the President

Depending on personal preferences, ideological inclinations, and political needs, the president may be in contact with business, industry, labor, and other interest group leaders. Normally, however, communications with interest groups are made on the president’s behalf by individual members of the White House staff and by the White House Office of Public Engagement and, on occasion, Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Presidents can cater to interest groups they favor or that have supported them or whose support they seek by pushing policies the interest groups desire. Usually, these are policies the president favors anyway. For example, President George W. Bush imposed restrictions on stem cell research, while President Barack Obama removed these restrictions shortly after taking office.

Interest groups supporting a presidential proposal can try to convince members of Congress with whom they have influence to vote in its favor. The White House may solicit such support as the George W. Bush administration did to gain the endorsement of AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and an expensive advertising campaign in support of the bill adding drug coverage to Medicare. But interest groups may not be permanent or even reliable allies. For example, in 2005 AARP opposed President Bush’s proposal to “reform” Social Security.

Lobbying Governmental Agencies

Bureaucrats are important to interest groups because they usually have leeway to decide what laws mean and how to administer and implement them. For example, the guidelines bureaucrats issued to carry out the Medicare drug benefit determined which drugs and medical devices would be covered. Lobbyists for doctors, hospitals, insurers, drug companies, pharmacies, and medical equipment manufacturers contacted bureaucrats directly about these decisions (Pear, 2011).

In a dramatic example of the importance of regulators’ discretion and the influence of groups, Toyota saved roughly $100 million by negotiating with regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to limit the recall of 2007 Toyota Camry and Lexus ES models for sudden acceleration. Toyota was allowed to recall the floor mats it claimed could become lodged under the accelerator pedal (Maynard, 2011).

Lobbying the Courts

Interest groups are affected by court decisions. It matters to them who the judges are in terms of their legal philosophy, policy preferences, and partisan affiliation. Interest groups who have the attention of the White House seek to influence the president’s selection of federal judges by suggesting candidates and screening those on the short list.

Groups for or against nominees lobby senators to approve, delay, or reject confirmation. Media-oriented tactics include testifying at hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, feeding negative or positive information about nominees to senators and reporters, sponsoring radio and television advertisements, and organizing grassroots campaigns (Bell, 2002).

Interest groups pursue their goals in court (Gonen, 2003). They may challenge a policy, appeal adverse decisions by other branches of government, and file suits against public officials to require them to take or refrain from taking some action. The US Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center represents the interests of business before the courts.

Certain interest groups use the courts as the main way to try to achieve their objectives. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) often brings cases before the courts to assert and protect constitutional rights. During the 1970s the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, headed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (later to be appointed to the Court by President Clinton), filed the majority of cases that challenged discrimination against women and were heard by the Supreme Court.

Interest groups may also go to court when they lack influence in the legislative and executive branches. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) mounted a litigation campaign against segregation laws, culminating in its notable victory in the Supreme Court’s 1954 unanimous school desegregation decision of Brown v. Board of Education.


Brown v. Board of Education

For more information on Brown v. Board of Education, see http://www.oyez.org/cases/1950-1959/1952/1952_1.

Regulation of Lobbying

As the opening anecdote from The Simpsons illustrates, interest groups in general and lobbyists in particular receive bad press. The media send out a drumbeat of criticism featuring stories of corruption and scandals in the relations of policymakers and lobbyists.

The media’s negative depictions of lobbying and the concern of members of Congress to refute accusations of being beholden to “special interest groups” (a derogatory term) have produced proposals to regulate lobbyists and lobbying. These are designed to correct abuses, placate the media, and reassure the public. They increase the amount of information about and the visibility of lobbying, eliminate the appearance of corruption, and may reduce lobbyists’ influence over the policymaking process.

Comparing Coverage

Jack Abramoff

Jack Abramoff’s meteoric rise began in 1995, soon after the Republicans took over Congress and interest groups and lobbying firms hired lobbyists connected to Republican legislators and conservative organizations. His lobbying successes started with keeping the government of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American territory in the Pacific, exempt from American labor laws; the islands’ factories could pay their workers a pittance yet still label their products “Made in America.” Then he saved a Native American tribe, the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, hundreds of millions in possible taxes by helping defeat a proposal to tax casino revenues. Other Native American tribes hired him, as he worked to defeat legislation to subject them to state taxes.

Initial media coverage of Abramoff was favorable. On July 3, 2000, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story describing his “money, methods and results” as “exceptional” (VandeHei, 2000). On April 2002 the New York Times published a similar front-page story, with quotes such as “‘I call Jack Abramoff, and I get results’” and, from the lobbyist himself, “‘All of my political work…is driven by philosophical interests, not by a desire to gain wealth’” (Rosenbaum, 2002). Both stories included criticisms of the lobbyist but depicted the man and his power and accomplishments positively overall.

On February 22, 2004, a front-page story in the Washington Post exposed Abramoff in the first of a series of investigative reports that would continue over three years (Schmidt, 2011). According to an article in Vanity Fair, “Abramoff believes the media’s negative coverage, leading to his downfall, began with competing Republican lobbyists who coveted his clientele and fed damaging information about him to the newspaper” (Margolick, 2006).

The stories revealed that Abramoff had exploited the Native American tribes. Casino-rich tribes had paid him and a public relations firm more than $45 million over three years. Abramoff had used some of the money to bribe members of Congress, make campaign contributions, hold fundraising events, and provide lavish trips, seats in sports boxes, and dinners for members of Congress as well as jobs for their relatives.

Adding to Abramoff’s woes, Republican Senator John McCain held several days of media-covered hearings in 2004 and 2005 exposing his activities. According to Abramoff, McCain’s aides heightened the negative media coverage by doling out embarrassing e-mails to the press in which the lobbyist ridiculed his Native American clients as “morons” and “monkeys” and threatened to crush rival lobbyists like bugs (Margolick, 2006).

On January 3, 2006, Abramoff pled guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

The first comprehensive lobbying regulation was enacted in 1946. The Legislative Reorganization Act required lobbyists to register their affiliation and record their finances (US Government Printing Office, 2011). Later, the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act required lobbying firms and lobbyists to register with Congress and file reports twice per year listing their compensation, clients, lobbying expenses, and issues they are following for each of their clients (US House of Representatives, 2011). Only trivial gifts from lobbyists to legislators are allowed (Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, 1995).

In 2006, a series of corruption scandals contributed to the Republicans losing control of Congress. During the election Democrats pledged to reform the culture of Washington, DC. In 2007, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed a law establishing new ethics and lobbying rules for Congress. Its main provisions bar members from accepting gifts, meals, or trips from lobbyists or the organizations that employ them, requires the filing of lobbying reports on the Internet, and increases the civil and criminal penalties for failing to comply with lobbying laws.

When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he issued an executive order forbidding appointees in every executive agency from accepting gifts, participating for two years on any matter they had worked on in prior employment, lobbying Congress for two years after leaving the administration, and ever lobbying the Obama administration.[2] However, the manipulation of legal loopholes and a lack of stringent enforcement can undermine the effectiveness of any lobbying regulations.

Key Takeaways

Interests groups use lobbyists to influence public officials. Lobbyists seek access to public officials in all government branches. Lobbyists try to influence government officials by providing information regarding their group’s interests and through grassroots lobbying. Many lobbyists are former public officials. The media are often critical of lobbying, and various attempts have been made to regulate lobbyists and lobbying. The manipulation of legal loopholes and the lack of stringent enforcement sometimes undermine lobbying regulations.


  1. Do you think it matters that so many government servants become lobbyists and vice versa? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a “revolving door” between lobbying and government service?
  2. What makes lobbyists valuable to their clients? What can lobbyists do for groups seeking to influence politics?
  3. How are lobbyists regulated? What can lobbyists still legally do under lobbying regulations?


Bell, L. C., Warring Factions: Interest Groups, Money, and the New Politics of Senate Confirmation (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002).

Gonen, J. S., Litigation as Lobbying (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003).

Kersh, R., “Corporate Lobbyists as Political Actors: A View from the Field,” in Interest Group Politics, 6th ed., ed. Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2002), 227.

Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, Pub. L. No. 104-65, 109 Stat. 691–706 (December 19, 1995).

Lichtblau, E., “Lawmakers Regulate Banks, Then Flock to Them,” New York Times, April 13, 2010, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/business/14lobby.html.

Margolick, D., ”Washington’s Invisible Man,” Vanity Fair, April 2006, 247.

Maynard, M., “House Panel Says Toyota Misled Public on Safety,” New York Times, February 23, 2010, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/business/global/23toyota.html?ref=michelinemaynard.

Pear, R., “Medicare Law Prompts a Rush for Lobbyists,” New York Times, August 23, 2005, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/23/politics/23health.html.

Rosenbaum, D. E., “At $500 an Hour, Lobbyist’s Influence Rises with G.O.P.,” New York Times, April 3, 2002, accessed March 23, 2011, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A01E6DC103AF930A35757C0A9649C8B63.

Schmidt, S., “A Jackpot from Indian Gaming Tribes,” Washington Post, February 22, 2004, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A60906-2004Feb21?language=printer.

US Government Printing Office, “Legislative Reorganization Acts: Provisions of the Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970 Applicable to Both Houses,” accessed April 4, 2011, http://www.gpo.gov/congress/house/hd106-320/pdf/hrm85.pdf.

US House of Representatives, Office of the Law Revision Counsel, “2 USC Chapter 26: Disclosure of Lobbying Activities,” accessed April 4, 2011, http://uscode.house.gov/download/pls/02C26.txt.

VandeHei, J., “Rain Dance: Mississippi Choctaw Find an Unlikely Ally In a GOP Stalwart…,” Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2000.

Wright, J. R., Interest Groups and Congress (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996), 9–10.

  1. The Center for Responsive Politics has compiled a comprehensive database of lobbyist activities. “Lobbying Database,” Center for Responsive Politics, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.opensecrets.org/lobbyists/index.php.
  2. “Executive Order—Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel,” January 21, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Executive Order-Ethics Commitments.


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