When public policy decisions are being made in the United States, corporations, advocacy groups, and others interact with Congress and the government's Executive Branch to influence those decisions. This activity, called "lobbying," is sometimes accused of promoting so-called special interests at the expense of the public at-large. There are laws and ethics rules in place to prevent lobbying from becoming outright bribery.
The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate create laws that become policy, and regulations to be carried out. And, that is where something called "lobbying" comes in. Lobbying is the practice of trying to influence the outcome of Congressional legislation, and decisions made by the Executive Branch.
There are laws which govern lobbying, as well as ethics rules for Members of Congress and the administration. At Georgetown University, professor Mark Rom talks about the so-called "fences" which define the boundaries.
"We are always testing where those boundaries are, where those rules are," said Rom. "Here is the big thing: giving money to get something done - that is illegal. Talking with someone to get things done - that is not illegal. But there are lots of ways that money comes into the political process that make those boundaries hard to define. And, they are always open to dispute."
The news media and outside citizens' monitoring groups also keep a wary eye on how lobbying is conducted. One of those watching is Ken Vogel at the Politico newspaper in Washington.
"For the most part, lobbyists and lobbying are heavily regulated," Vogel. "They have to report exactly how much money they have spent on various types of lobbying: on ads, and on campaign contributions. And, this is something that is very closely watched -- both by us here in the media, and by self-appointed ethics "watchdog" groups out there in Washington, who, if they see anything that sort of smells funny, or gives any kind of a look of impropriety of the sale of legislation or the sale of influence, they will pounce. And, it will become a potentially detrimental issue for any of the public officials who are involved.
A detrimental enough issue to send some in Congress to jail.
San Diego, California, Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight years for conspiracy to commit bribery and several other charges. He took favors from a defense contractor, including a yacht to live aboard in Washington.
Another Congressman, Bob Ney of the state of Ohio, drew a 30-month prison sentence for corruption tied to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In exchange for favors, Abramoff took Ney on a lavish golf trip to Scotland and steered campaign contributions to him.
There is yet another ethics issue -- the movement of decisionmakers into the ranks of the lobbyists, and vice-versa. Critics call this a 'revolving door' that enables ex-lawmakers and government decisionmakers to have exceptional influence on laws and regulations.
Indeed, a new study by the Washington Post newspaper finds that three out of four lobbyists for the oil and gas industry used to work inside the federal government, many in regulatory positions.
Lobbyist Nicholas Allard at the Patton Boggs firm discusses the practice of government officials and lobbyists switching seats.
"The relevant question is, when someone leaves the government, is 'Is there a conflict of interest, and, are they benefiting [now] from their [prior] government service?' And the flip side is, when somebody goes from the private sector - let's say they were a lobbyist - and they are going into the government, into public service, 'What is their motivation? Is their motivation private gain?' And, as our [Patton Boggs] partner John Breaux – [former] Senator John Breaux - said when he was criticized for leaving the Senate and becoming a lobbyist, a very successful one, he said 'Look - I have been in government my entire life. What do you expect me to become, an auto mechanic?'" said Alard.
In President Obama's 2010 State of the Union speech, he said "We've excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs or seats on federal boards and commissions." Despite that, some lobbyists are working in his administration under certain exceptions to the president's executive order.