Lobbying has played an intricate role in the United States since its inception, and its influence has reached unprecedented heights in the 21st century. Lobbyists spent over $3.47 billion on influencing public policy in 2019 alone, and its power is bound to grow. With its increasingly powerful role in government, it is important to remember lobbying’s importance and consequences for America.
Lobbying is a legal practice, backed by both the 1st Amendment and the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. The 1st Amendment allows for the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (which in modern-day language can translate to lobbying), while the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 acknowledges the legality of lobbying and provides regulations for it. These regulations are significant as they distinguish lobbying from bribery.
Lobbying gives a political outlet to many who cannot find one, which is important because lobbyists can represent any cause they want. Civic engagement in our government is an inherent part of democracy, and lobbying has the ability to promote this all while representing the interests of citizens whose voices cannot be heard in government. Lobbyists provide a connection between citizen interests and Washington, and this connection is critical to sustaining a functioning democracy. By representing a singular interest for a large number of constituents (rather than single constituents promoting issues on their own), lobbyists are able to draw attention to previously underrepresented causes in Congress.
Lobbying’s benefits are not one-sided, in fact, they equally benefit both participants. Politicians do not have the time to comprehensively research every single legislative issue that they will be voting on. Lobbyists, on the other hand, make a career out of certain issues and are obviously extremely well-educated on the issues they lobby. Lobbyists can impart this knowledge to politicians to help them understand legislative issues at an in-depth level. Now lobbyists are inclined to be biased because their job is to advocate for a particular side of a topic. However, encyclopedic legislation that is hard to understand at surface level is likely to have more than one interest group, enabling politicians to hear differing views of legislation. This will ultimately aid them in making a more well-informed vote on the issue at hand, which is a much better alternative to voting without any strong background knowledge.
Many assert that lobbying is dominated by corporate interests, and true public interests are discarded in favor of private ones, undermining our democratic process. This is absolutely true, and our democratic process is further deteriorated when lobbyists turn to criminal activity to gain favor with politicians. These are inherent flaws of the lobbying practice, and unfortunately, are hard to put an end to. However, it is important to note that the consequences of completely eliminating lobbying in America are far worse. If lobbying was abolished, then these big corporate interests will find illicit ways to influence our government. This is an even greater deterioration of our democratic process. Instead, we should find ways to reform the lobbying altogether in order to create a more equitable and honest process.
An article by Lee Drutman actually has an innovative solution that attempts to tackle these exact problems. He proposes that “[t]he Library of Congress should create a website that will become the de facto online forum and clearinghouse for all public policy advocacy.” As simple as it sounds, this solution combats the major flaws of lobbying. Traditional forms of lobbying can still be maintained, however, I think this should be strongly integrated into the lobbying industry as a whole. By making an online forum, public transparency is increased and the cost factor of lobbying is minimized, allowing more people to lobby for their causes. More public interests can be heard, restoring some authenticity to our democratic process.
Now obviously many details would need to be worked out to make this an actual possibility: how would it be monitored? How much (if anything) would it cost to post something? Do the forums have a certain lifespan? How would we know if actual Congressmembers look at these forums, rather than sticking to traditional forms of lobbying? These are all valid questions that should be addressed if this forum is implemented. But for now, Drutman’s idea remains as a logical and innovative solution to tackling “bad lobbying”, all while keeping the good, traditional forms of lobbying intact.
Lobbying will continue to play an influential role in American politics, and it is important to remind ourselves why that is so. However, it is also important to address its flaws and find ways to minimize them. When lobbying is done correctly, civic engagement flourishes and our government becomes more “of the people, by the people, for the people”.