What is lobbying?

Most people think the definition of lobbying is "the act of bribing politicians to get what you want".


Would it surprise you to hear that bribery rarely exists in lobbying? The reality is that lobbying is much more complicated than donating to a politician and expecting to get his or her vote.


So what is lobbying? Let's look at the lobbying definition, who can lobby, what is considered lobbying, how lobbying works, some examples of lobbying, and why it is legal.

What is the definition of lobbying?

Lobbying is the act of as trying to influence a politician or public official on an issue.

Who can lobby Congress?

Anybody can lobby Congress! It is guaranteed in the First Amendment that all Americans have the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." 

Most corporations and associations hire professionals to lobby Congress on their behalf. These people are the ones who get paid big bucks to lobby Congress and these professionals are what people typically think of when they hear the word lobbyists.

Public interest groups, like labor unions and nonprofits, also hire professionals to lobby the government, but they are outspent $34 to $1 by corporations and special interest groups

What is lobbying? Why do lobbyists and what do lobbyists do? This picture shows a lobbyist in D.C. lobbying on behalf of the people

What is considered lobbying?

Technically speaking, anytime somebody marches or protests, writes a letter to their member of Congress, calls their representative, or posts online to try to influence their elected official, they are lobbying their government.


However, most people agree that this is not what is meant by the word lobbying. Therefore, it is best to look at how The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, the law that governs lobbying registration, defines the term lobbying.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act defines lobbying as any oral or written communication to an executive branch official or a legislative branch official with the goal of:
1. forming, modifying, or adopting Federal legislation,
2. forming, modifying, or adopting a rule, regulation, Executive Order, or any other program or policy,
3. administrating or securing a Federal contract, grant, loan, permit, or license, or
4. nominating or confirming a person for a position subject to confirmation by the Senate.

If you are doing any of the above then you are lobbying and may need to register with the government.


It is important to note that if you educating an executive branch or legislative branch official about an issue, and not advocating for a specific piece of legislation, rule, regulation, Executive order, Federal program, policy, grant, contract, loan, permit, or license, then you are not lobbying.

How does lobbying work?

In 2017, a lobbying campaign on our crowdfunding platform raised enough money to lobby Congress on behalf of the people. The goal was to increase the budget for the U.S. Institute of Peace. To explain how lobbying works, we thought we would highlight our lobbying work to show you an example of lobbying. 

This is how we were able to earn an extra 2.5 million dollars for the Insitute of Peace through lobbying: 

What are some examples of lobbying?

List of chemicals regulated by the toxic substances control act
A clean Power Plant in an open field

Lobbyists for environmental groups were able to pressure the EPA to reduce emissions for coal powered power plants, despite strong opposition from the coal industry. 

21st Century Cures Act Bill Logo
Chart showing the tax cuts that Americans will see as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

1469 companies, organizations, and special interest groups registered to lobby on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018. Because of the bill, twice as many companies paying zero taxes under Trump tax plan.

What qualifies as lobbying?

Lobbying consists of many activities that try to persuade lawmakers and influence policy. Here are a couple examples of activities that qualify as lobbying: 


  • Meet one-on-one with lawmakers to convince them to support a certain law or policy

  • Persuade lawmakers to propose, pass, or amend legislation in their specific committee

  • Work with government agencies to change existing laws and regulations

  • Provide relevant information to lawmakers about their home districts and voters

  • Research policy solutions for their issue and share that with congressional staff

  • Identify "champions" for the cause and encourage them to introduce legislation

  • Build relationships with lawmakers and their staff through networking

  • Partner with other organizations in the field and form coalitions with specific goals

  • Train advocates in other organizations on how they can become better advocates

Why is it called lobbying?

The term lobbying first appeared in print in 1820 describing members of the Senate "lobbying" members of the House of Representatives to take up a piece of legislation they passed. 


A famous story claims that the term lobbying originated at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. The story states that President Ulysses S. Grant used the term to describe the political advocates who frequented the hotel's lobby and would then try to buy the president drinks in an attempt to influence his political decisions.


However, in a report carried by the BBC, a historian showed that "lobbying" has its roots in the gathering of Members of Parliament and peers in the hallways ("lobbies") of the UK Houses of Parliament before and after parliamentary debates where members of the public can meet their representatives.

Why is lobbying legal?

Lobbying is legal because of the First Amendment of the Constitution.


"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The last part, the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, means that people, corporations, trade associations, nonprofits, and even state and county governments have the right to make a complaint to or seek the assistance of the government—in other words, they have the right to lobby Congress.


A Supreme Court ruling in 1954 reaffirmed the legality of lobbying in the United States. In an opinion, Justice Jackson wrote that many lobbyists are "entirely honest and respectable representatives of business, professional, and philanthropic organizations who come to Washington openly and frankly to express their views for or against the legislation, many of whom serve a useful and perfectly legitimate purpose."

So while some bad-actor lobbyists do break laws, lobbying, in general, is a legal activity because, as you will read below, it's not bribery and trying to influence Congress is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution

Is lobbying bribery?

Researchers from Harvard University looked into the question "is lobbying bribery?"


After studying lobbyists for almost a year, they concluded that lobbysits are not professional bribers.


They were able to boil down what makes lobbyists so influential to two sentences:


“Contrary to public misconception, the daily life of firm lobbyists is not filled with glamorous parties and smoke-filled backroom politicking where lobbyists engage in quid pro quo transactions of money for policy. Rather, these firm lobbyists focus their professional attention on honing the fine art of building relationships, primarily with members of Congress and their staffs, but also with potential clients, coalitions and other individuals and organizations related to their clients and issue areas.”

The Harvard researchers also looked at the role donations play in lobbying and influence, and they came to a very interesting conclusion:


“Lobbyist participants engaged in extensive formality to frame support as gifts between political and legislative allies and friends… the general sense is that providing support in small amounts, at the “right” moments, served to build trusted relationships over time and to offset any inconvenience caused by taking the lawmaker’s time. A transaction or quid pro quo exchange, like borrowing money from a family member, would serve to undermine the relationship and, thus, it was to be avoided at all costs.”

Lobbyists working for the people?

Countless studies have shown that the best way to pass a law or change a policy in D.C. is by lobbying.

This is why corporations and special interest groups spend over 3 Billion dollars each year to hire lobbyists to lobby on their behalf.

The only way to counter these corporate influencers is to have lobbyists working for us. Our platform lets you raise money to hire a lobbyist to work for you!

Check out the VICE News Tonight segment about our work and consider supporting our amazing citizen advocates and their important issues.

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