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. But, lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity in the U.S., and has become a pervasive part of the decision process.
Laws are created in the United States in a very public process. Proposals, called "bills," are introduced in Congress, deliberated, and voted on. Then, the Executive Branch of the U.S. government carries out those laws, and the regulations that derive from them, through its many departments and agencies.
Individuals and businesses who are affected by these laws and regulations want to influence their creation, and their enforcement. In the United States, this effort to influence is called "lobbying." And it goes on not only in Washington, but also in all 50 U.S. state capitals.
The U.S. Constitution has provisions in it that allow lobbying to be a part of the governmental decision process. As Georgetown University public policy professor Mark Rom points out, these provisions are among the most basic constitutional principles.
"In the Constitution, we have the right to assemble. We have the right to petition the government. We have free speech, and a free press. So, when people want to change policy to influence the government, they are constitutionally protected in doing so," he said.
Because of these rights, it is common for American citizens to call, write, e-mail, and also sometimes mount demonstrations before their Members of Congress. They are telling those lawmakers they support -- or oppose -- the legislation being considered, and want them to vote accordingly.
In Washington, a great deal of the lobbying is done by third-party advocates.
"One way it [lobbying] has developed has been that companies or interest groups, such as a gun-rights group, or another interest group, hires a professional - either on their staff, or a consultant who works for a firm, to then go to Capitol Hill for them. These people are lobbyists, and they know more [than others do] about how Congress works, about the rules. They know the particular lawmakers who are important or might be sympathetic. So, lobbying today is largely about either big companies who hire a [lobbying] professional on-staff to make their case to Congress, or, companies hire full-time lobbyists who work here in Washington, who then go to Congress, or go to the Executive Branch, and make their case," explains Tim Carney, a reporter for the Washington Examiner newspaper.
Lobbying is a major industry in Washington. In 2009, estimates say close to $3.5 billion was spent to influence Congress and the Executive Branch. And, much of this is done by firms of lawyers who specialize in influencing the legislative process and regulatory enforcement. One of those firms is Patton Boggs, where partner Nicholas Allard says lawyers are essential to lobbying.
"The law that we are pursuing as lawyers is [tied to] the question 'What should the law be?' And, 'How should it be fairly implemented?' And so, that is why lawyers, fundamentally, are engaged. And, after all, we are talking about the process of writing laws and rules [regulations] so that they work. You know, there is always the 'Law of unintended consequences.' If laws are not drafted correctly, or if they are not implemented in a fair way so that you have a common rule applied universally in similar situations, you have bad results and bad policy," he said.
These lobbying firms have become highly successful in shaping legislation and policies for the benefit of their clients. Ken Vogel, with the Politico newspaper in Washington, says that influence is so strong that sometimes, lawmakers essentially follow the lobbyists' lead.
"In some cases, there are lobbying groups that are so successful and have so much influence that they are able to write bills, proposed bills, for members of Congress. And, these members of Congress will introduce them [the bills] without changing a word of them," he said.
Lobbying in Washington is not limited to Americans. There are international companies and foreign governments seeking to influence U.S. legislation and regulations as well.
But lobbying is not an "anything goes" activity. There are federal laws and ethics regulations that govern the process. And those rules are enforced, though not always perfectly.