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Should Lobbyists Be Strictly Regulated?

Since the 1940s there has been continuing debate in the United States over the proper role of lobbyists in a democratic society. Lobbyists contend they offer a valuable service to legislators and government officials, providing information and raising questions about pending legislation or executive action. Critics argue that many lobbyists are nothing more than influence peddlers who seek political and legislative favors for their clients.

The perception that lobbyists and the interest groups they represent have corrupted the political process has led to state and federal legislation that regulates lobbyists. Nevertheless, a fundamental conflict remains over the extent to which government may regulate lobbyists and lobbying activities. Those opposed to restrictions on lobbying argue that the FIRST AMENDMENT guarantees the right of citizens to petition the government for redress of grievances. Placing restrictions on lobbyists impairs this right. On the other side, critics of lobbyists assert that regulations are needed to preserve the democratic process and to ensure the legitimacy of government. Many people have become cynical about politicians and government, perceiving that only lobbyists have access to the halls of power.

Lobbyists believe that their activities are protected by the First Amendment. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never stated that there is a constitutional right to petition the government, supporters of lobbying note that several state supreme courts have acknowledged a fundamental right to do so. Therefore, any regulations on lobbying must be the least restrictive means to further a compelling state interest.

Lobbyists assert that regulations requiring them to name specific contacts made with legislative or congressional staff have a chilling effect and weaken relationships that have been built up over many years. Staff members are often under time pressure to find information on legislative issues, and depend on lobbyists to help them meet these demands. Disclosure of contacts with lobbyists forces staff members to refrain from making legitimate requests, out of fear that disclosure will produce political embarrassment.

Lobbyists argue they have been given an unflattering and absurd stereotype as influence peddlers. With over fourteen thousand lobbyists in Washington, D.C., representing every conceivable interest group, including environmental and consumer organizations, it is clear that there is a demand for lobbying. The size and complexity of the federal government have, in large part, driven the need for lobbyists to help define positions on issues of public policy. Moreover, on all issues of widespread concern, lobbyists are found on both sides, producing one more set of checks and balances that undercuts the simplistic picture of corruption and favoritism.

Lobbyists and their supporters maintain that intrusive regulations on lobbying can impair the democratic process. Laws that seek to identify contributors to lobbying groups may have a chilling effect on the exercise of citizens' rights. If made public, a contribution to an unpopular lobby can discourage similar contributions by others. Because many unpopular lobbies are small and poorly funded, discouraging even a few donors may significantly affect the support for a wide variety of viewpoints.

Supporters of strict regulation of lobbyists dispute these arguments. They contend that regulation is needed to prevent special interests from controlling the political process, to ensure ethical behavior on the part of lawmakers and government officials, and to enhance the public's confidence in the government. Numerous scandals have been linked to lobbying at the federal and state levels, providing ample justification for such regulation. Lobbyists have a place in the legislative process, concede many critics, but they must be prevented from using money and favors improperly to influence legislators and their staffs.

Critics of lobbying note that the courts have generally supported reasonable regulation of lobbying activity. This type of regulation does not prevent lobbyists from openly and appropriately communicating with government in regard to legislation. The regulation does restrict traditional practices such as giving legislators and staffs tickets to sporting events, paying for meals and entertainment, and underwriting golf and skiing junkets. These practices have contributed to the public perception that gifts and favors buy access to legislators and sometimes even votes.

Critics of lobbying also support regulation that forces the public disclosure of whom lobbyists represent. Registration of lobbyists is a minimally restrictive means of serving the public interest, yet it gives the public information on which interest groups are involved in pending legislative matters. Critics argue that lobbyists should not be permitted to work their influence in anonymity. The public has a right to know what interest groups have shaped legislation.

Despite the reforms legislated in the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, 109 Stat. 691, 2 U.S.C.A. § 1601 et seq., critics of lobbying argue that additional reform is needed. The act addresses disclosure, registration, and a ban on gifts and meals, but it leaves large loopholes, the largest being the ability of lobbyists to make large contributions to the campaign committees of members of Congress. The critics point out the irony of banning small gifts yet permitting senators and representatives to accept $5,000 donations for their campaign committees from POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEES controlled by lobbyists. Even more distressing, note critics, is the change this situation has produced in the dynamics between lobbyist and legislator: it is now the legislator who calls the lobbyist, asking for a political contribution.

Critics charge that the unceasing quest for campaign cash has distorted the political system. The only way to prevent lobbyists and the special interests they represent from dominating the legislative process is to establish the public financing of congressional campaigns. Once campaign contributions are no longer an issue, critics conclude, lobbyists will lose their last effective means of improperly influencing legislation.

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