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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.

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

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

Isn't lobbying bribery?

A bribe is given between a lawmaker and a lobbyists in front of the Capitol and the Washington Monument

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.”

Are Lobbyists Ethical?

Many assume that lobbyists work for nefarious corporate and special interest clients. However, there are many nonprofits, public interest groups, hospitals, and labor unions, that hire lobbyists to lobby for them.

Take, for example, former Congressman Phil English who served 14 years in the House of Representatives. He is now a lobbyist for one of the largest lobbying firms, Arent Fox. While he has many corporate clients in the pharmaceutical and energy sectors, he also has lobbied for Catholic Charities USA, several research colleges and universities, as well as one of the top children’s hospitals in the country. So does he count as an unethical lobbyist?

There are many white-hat lobbyists as well who only work for nonprofits and on issues that benefit the common good. One prominent D.C. lobbyist, Thomas Sheridan, wrote a book called "Helping the Good Do Better: How a White Hat Lobbyist Advocates for Social Change." His clients include National Head Start Association, Alliance for Catholic Education, CityYear, Save the Children, and The One Campaign.

White Hat Lobbyists vs. Black Hat Lobbyists?

White hat lobbying versus black hat comparison

Lobbies Congress for nonprofits or good causes

Uphold the strictest ethical standards

Charge a reasonable rate for their work

Do not contribute to political campaigns or Political Action Committees (PACs)

Lobby to protect their client's bottom line

Push the limits of the law to gain an edge

Charge their clients thousands per hour

Gain access to politicians through political donations and fundraisers

Black Hat Lobbyist Examples:


Jack Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon engaged in a series of corrupt practices in connection to their lobbying work for various Indian gaming tribes. The fees paid to Abramoff and Scanlon for this work are believed to exceed $85 million.

In the course of the scheme, the lobbyists were accused of illegally giving gifts and making campaign donations to legislators in return for votes or support of the legislation. Representative Bob Ney and two aides to Tom DeLay were directly implicated; other politicians had various ties.

He was sentenced to six years in federal prison for mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials, and tax evasion. He served 43 months before being released on December 3, 2010.

White Hat Lobbyists Examples:


Named a “Top Lobbyist” by The Hill newspaper for 2016, Tom Sheridan is described as a “powerbroker for those without a voice.”


A social worker by training and an advocate by trade, Tom brings a unique perspective to his work as one of Washington’s most senior political and public policy strategists.


Tom is known on Capitol Hill and in the West Wing for using his deep understanding of the political process and decades-long relationships with senior members of Congress and top administration officials to help organizations achieve scalable, positive social change.

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