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Special Commentary: Lobbying in America

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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University

There is a debate among political scholars as to which type of lobbying is more effective – direct or indirect. Before addressing this question, let me provide some background on lobbying.

Lobbyists are knowledgeable people, many of them lawyers. They meet with advocates and other organizations on Capitol Hill to support specific legislation. Lobbying Congress often involves lobbyists doing the leg work that can’t be completed by congressional staff members because there are not enough of them with the requisite expertise. Lobbyists compile evidence for congressional hearings. They attend hearings to keep members and staff well abreast of what is going on.

Despite the great work lobbyists generally do, political lobbying generally does not have a good reputation primarily due to negative media reporting. It only takes a few corrupt lobbyists (see Jack Abramoff, Rep. Randy Cunningham, and Charles Keating) to sour people on lobbying efforts in Congress. Lobbying has its roots in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The most current law regarding lobbying is the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which is intended to keep members of Congress from accepting gifts from lobbyists, and requires them to disclose more information related to their lobbyists. In 2009, President Obama signed two Executive Orders and three presidential memoranda which restricted how former members of Congress could be employed as lobbyists in the government. However, lobbying is not restricted to just members of Congress. It occurs at every level of government, and also is done within the executive branch where policies are implemented.

Since 1998, 43 percent of the members who left Congress registered to become lobbyists. The Center for Responsive Politics reported on opensecrets.org, a site that tracks the flow of money in Washington, that there are currently 12,000 lobbyists registered federally. Of the 81 former members of the 111th Congress with new jobs, 25 of them are now lobbyists. Among current congressional staffers, 120 are former lobbyists. Among current lobbyists, 890 are former congressional staffers. Yet, there are an estimated 261,000-plus people involved in lobbying when you count all of the assistants, lawyers, et al. And, the amount of money spent lobbying in federal government ranges from $2 billion to $3.5 billion annually. (Open Secret 2013)

Direct lobbying is any attempt to influence legislation between a lobbyist and anyone involved in making laws and policy. Usually, before meetings take place between lobbyists and lawmakers, lobbyists must have knowledge of not only the subject, but also of the lawmaker with whom they will be speaking, their voting history, and their stance on a particular subject. The communication between a lobbyist and lawmaker must be related to specific legislation and involve a position on it to legally be considered lobbying. The majority of lobbying is done directly.

Alternatively, there is indirect lobbying , also known as “grassroots” lobbying. This is referred to as “grassroots” because lobbyists appeal directly to the public with a “call to action” to influence the elected official to vote in their favor on some legislation. There is also something known as “AstroTurf” lobbying which is grassroots lobbying sponsored by corporations. Using indirect lobbying , lobbyists get citizens to write letters, sign petitions, call their representatives, and even stage public demonstrations for their particular cause. The indirect approach also involves sending faxes and emails, writing editorials, advertising, holding fundraisers, and holding public meetings to bring attention to their point of view. In a 2000 Gallop Poll survey of Congress, “more than 70 percent rated personal letters from the constituents as having a great deal of influence on their legislative decisions” (Brown M.D., J. & Evens M.D., R. 2000). However, there is much more time and effort involved in indirect, compared to direct, lobbying.

Just as there is corruption associated with direct lobbying (e.g., bribes, favors, entertainment), so is there with indirect lobbying. Fraudulent grassroots lobbying could include sending communications from a nonexistent person, or knowingly submitting false information to an official or to the public. According to Ron Jacobs, et al, of Venable.com, “The more an organization controls and/or directs the grassroots activities, the less genuine the resulting communication may appear in the eyes of the official and public.”

So, the question is which approach is more effective? Since this is a political question, the answer is the standard, “It depends.” It depends on a few key factors, including the lawmaker, the legislation and contextual variables. The first factor is who are the lawmakers one is trying to influence. Sometimes the direct approach is more effective as it is more tailored to the lawmakers, their personalities or their political affinity. On the other hand, seeing massive demonstrations on an issue in a member’s home district or state both in person and on the national news, or receiving hundreds of phone calls or emails daily could have the decisive impact. Lawmakers are human, so there are many variables that affect how they might be influenced.

Then, there is the legislation itself being considered. Some issues are easier than others to get citizens motivated to petition for.

Finally, there are contextual variables that could affect which type of lobbying might be more effective. For example, if there is limited time before a vote on a controversial bill, then direct lobbying would likely be more effective as indirect lobbying takes more time to organize and execute. Another example would be who the stakeholders are in favor of and against the bill. The greater the stature of the stakeholders, the more likely that grassroots lobbying would be more effective. A third example would be the availability of resources. Indirect lobbying usually requires more resources (i.e., time and money) than direct lobbying.

About the Author
Dr. Schwalbe retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Air Force Academy; a master’s degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University; a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; a master’s degree from the Naval War College; and, a PhD from Auburn University in Public Policy.

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