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.
Isn't 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.”
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.