What Is Lobbying (And Do We Really Need Lobbyists)?

In 2018, lobbying spending in America reached $3.4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2007 Gallup released its annual honesty and ethical standards list ranking the most trustworthy professions in the United States.

At the top of the list were nurses, whose honesty was ranked “very high” or “high” by 83 percent of respondents, followed by teachers (74 percent), druggists (71 percent), military officers (65 percent), and physicians (64 percent).

Who are lobbyists, and why do they have such shady reputations?

At the very bottom of the list, one spot above car salesmen, was a newly added profession: lobbyists. Just 5 percent of respondents described their ethics as "very high" or "high.”

The poor placement was not an outlier. Six years later, lobbyists remained dead last in Gallup’s poll. Who are lobbyists, and why do they have such shady reputations?

What Is Lobbying?

To find out why people don’t trust lobbyists, one must first understand what lobbying is. The word lobby comes from the German word louba (noun), which means "hall or roof.” The term, which took hold during the Enlightenment era, stems from the public buildings and common halls where legislation was passed.

Individuals seeking to influence legislation would show up at these “lobbies” to speak for or against legislation. This is precisely what lobbying means today. As the Oxford Dictionary explains, in verb form lobbying means “to try to influence a politician or the government [to] … persuade them to support or oppose a change in the law.”

Not everyone who seeks to influence a law or lawmaker is a lobbyist. The primary difference comes down to one word: money.

From this basic definition, we can see that lobbying is political in nature, which might explain why people are suspect of the ethics and honesty of lobbyists. However, this definition is not complete.

Not everyone who seeks to influence a law or lawmaker is a lobbyist. State and federal laws make it clear that lobbying is not the same thing as being a lobbyist. The primary difference comes down to one word: money.

Unlike a citizen or company trying to influence a law or legislator, lobbyists are paid to influence. It’s for this reason that lobbying is sometimes compared to bribery or extortion.

Lobbying: By the Numbers

In 2018, lobbying spending in America reached $3.4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. There were 11,586 registered lobbyists in the US in 2018, according to Statista. According to Salary.com, the average salary of a lobbyist in Washington, DC, was just under $125,000 a year.

Top lobbyists at both the state and federal level make much more than this, however. Even in relatively small states, it’s not uncommon for top-tier lobbyists to make between $500,000 and $750,000 a year. In Washington, DC, many top lobbyists are compensated more like CEOs, making millions of dollars a year.

Who Are These Lobbyists?

The average Joe or Jane might think lobbying sounds like a great gig: money, power, and access. However, these jobs are not easy to come by.

Lobbyists are paid handsomely because they offer clients influence and access they lack. They tend to possess unique knowledge and the know-how to navigate the labyrinth of rules and regulations that govern lobbying and lawmaking.

How did these lobbyists acquire this? In many cases, by having served in government themselves. Congressional members and state officeholders, it should be noted, also rank low on Gallup’s annual honesty and ethical standards list.At the national level, roughly half of senators and 42 percent of House members go on to become lobbyists, according to The New York Times Magazine. This “revolving door” issue is also present in many states.

Former lawmakers tend to be among the most highly paid lobbyists. A former Republican congressman, for example, made nearly $20 million as a lobbyist for drug companies between 2006 and 2010, according to The Nation. A prominent former Democratic senator banked close to $10 million as a lobbyist for the movie industry over a six-year tenure.

Congressional members and state officeholders, it should be noted, also rank low on Gallup’s annual honesty and ethical standards list. This might further explain why lobbyists, who are made up largely up former lawmakers, are considered untrustworthy.

Why Do We Even Have Lobbyists?

Corporations spending billions of dollars to pay people with access to influence politicians doesn’t sound like a pure or noble system of governing. This is why many politicians and organizations say “special interest” lobbying is inherently corrupt and should be reformed, restricted, or ended altogether.

The argument against restricting or eliminating lobbying is that it deprives people and companies of a cornerstone of civil government: the ability to petition government.

There’s also no clear line between people with interests and “special interests,” which is why lobbying advocates take issue with the term. Labor unions are one example of “special interest” groups who often employ lobbyists.

This text has led many legal scholars, though not all, to see lobbying as not just a fundamental tool but a constitutionally protected one.

A union seeking better worker safety protections or benefits might find it difficult to navigate the system and numerous committees to get their issue heard without lobbyists. The Chamber of Commerce is another example. Founded by politician Charles Nagel, the USCC spent nearly $95 million on lobbying in 2018, much of it in opposition to tariffs that could have a damaging impact on business.

Proponents see lobbying as a fundamental tool of organizations to protect or advance their interests, and one that cannot be abrogated. They cite the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which states "the right of the people...to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

This text has led many legal scholars, though not all, to see lobbying as not just a fundamental tool but a constitutionally protected one.

Do We Really Need Lobbyists?

For a constitutional republic to work, citizens and groups need to be heard. Government has the power to help individuals and harm individuals, and people seeking assistance, redress, or protection require ways to petition their government.

How do citizens or groups get the government and lawmakers to hear them? What if the people are simply ignored? The Supreme Court has said government policymakers have no obligation “to listen or respond to communications of members of the public on public issues.”

In the end, the best way to reduce the power of lobbyists may be to reduce the scope of government and influence-peddling.

Lobbying, as unseemly and transactional as it appears, is one method the people possess to petition lawmakers and be heard. The Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck is said to have quipped that making laws, like sausage-making, is a process better left unseen. Lobbying is much the same.

Americans appear to hold lobbying in low regard, but as long as government power continues to expand, lobbyists are likely to remain gainfully employed, as special interests line up to petition for favors or protect their interests.

In the end, as one economist has observed, the best way to reduce the power of lobbyists may be to reduce the scope of government and influence-peddling in Washington, DC, and state capitals.

More by Jon Miltimore