Lobbying, or influencing political decision makers, is a longstanding tradition in America.  But some analysts say that it has become a lucrative business, which sometimes breaks the law. 

Last year, former powerful Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to nearly six years in prison after he plead guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials and promised to cooperate in an investigation of his relationship with members of Congress.

Abramoff was initially caught cheating four American Indian tribes that paid his firm tens of millions of dollars.  But working with conservative religious activists, he helped shut down one of the tribe's gambling casinos.  Abramoff then persuaded the tribe to pay him $4.2 million to try to get Congress to reopen it.

Political historian Allan Lichtmann of American University in Washington says Abramoff was not only notorious for playing one client against another, but also for giving questionable gifts to lawmakers. "Jack Abramoff was paying to send members of the legislature and other influential opinion makers to the Mariana Islands in the Pacific because the owners of textile factories in the Marianas were his clients and he was trying to drum up support to keep his clients exempt from American minimum wage and other labor laws."

Massie Ritsch is with the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. He says, ?Abramoff was essentially bribing members of Congress and their staffs by providing them with gifts and campaign contributions to fund their elections, trips, meals, and with sports tickets and hiring their staffs and family members.?

"It is a constitutional protected right to petition the U.S. government and present your case on an issue,? says Ritsch. ?But if they then deliver something in return for money that you have given them or another special favor, then that's illegal.?

Lobbying and Law Making

Ritsch says that interest groups often offer their own versions of bills they want Congress to pass, but that excesses like the Abramoff scandal are rare.

"Legislation is written and drafted initially by lobbyists who handed it over to members of Congress and say, 'We've saved you the trouble. We've done the work for you.  Here is the law as we think should be written.'  And it's OK if the dissenting voices are also writing their own legislation and offering it to them.  It's a problem when only one voice is heard and they get to write legislation," says Ritsch.

A frequent, but controversial way lobbies try to obtain government funds for their clients is through earmarks, which are funds or tax benefits for specific businesses, projects or institutions.  A recent report by The Heritage Foundation research organization says that many special interests obtained earmarks after hiring lobbyists who were relatives of lawmakers or staffers affiliated with congressional appropriations committees.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress, the number of earmarks in appropriations bills has tripled in the past decade to about 16-thousand. American University's Allan Lichtmann says critics of such targeted funds contend that lawmakers often neglect the nation's best interests when making these decisions with taxpayers' money.

"Sometimes there are thousands of earmarks inserted into legislation such as a transportation bill,? says Lichtmann. ?So you bring money into your state for things like roads, bridges, harbors, libraries and museums and anything else that you think is going to play well with your constituents at home.  One of the most famous examples of a notorious earmark in recent years was a senator from Alaska got several hundred million-dollars earmarked for a bridge that went to an island that no one was living on.?

The Power of Public Opinion

But Lichtmann adds that public outrage over the Abramoff scandal prompted Congress to try to make what many call "the influence industry" more transparent. "The disclosure that members of Congress were taking bribes is having a corrective effect.  And we have had just recently new legislation designed to curb the influence of lobbying, such as an absolute prohibition of lobbyists making gifts to members of the legislature and a prohibition of legislators riding on corporate jets."

Still, Lichtman argues that the influence of lobbyist is too pervasive. But other analysts, including John Samples of the Washington-based Cato Institute, say that when it comes to key matters, public opinion holds the most sway with lawmakers.

"When an issue becomes more public, when it's in the media, when even a larger number of Washington people are interested in it, what you typically find is that the most important influence is public opinion. What's the mood of the public?  What do they want?  Members of Congress are very attuned to that," says Samples.

According to Samples, the role and proliferation of special interest groups in Washington, which now number some 14,000, hinges on the size of government and its activities.

"Remember that Microsoft Corporation, one of the most important American corporations, didn't have any lobbyist in Washington until it got served with an anti-trust case from the Department of Justice," says Samples. "The reason they got that is because their competitors had lobbyists.  There will be more lobbyists, if there is more to be influenced and more at stake."

Samples adds that if over the long-term the size of government shrinks, the number of lobbies could too.  Meanwhile, he says, the industry will remain under public scrutiny.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.