Lobbying Research Paper

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Lobbying describes the effort of organized interests to inform policy makers and to try to persuade them to choose particular policy choices. The term derives from an earlier time when legislators did not have their own offices. Representatives of organizations would station themselves in the corridors and lobbies to intercept legislators as they walked toward the legislative chamber. On one level lobbying is a communications process, whereby group representatives (lobbyists) or group members send messages that give those in government information favorable to the group’s cause. At another level lobbying is the exercise of a fundamental democratic freedom: the right of citizens to organize and to ask those in government to respond to their preferences. In the US, that right to lobby is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees Americans the freedom to ‘petition the government.’

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Although lobbying is a basic freedom, it is not without controversy. In no society do all citizens possess equal resources, belong to equally effective organizations, or are equally well represented before government. Interest groups with more resources and higher status constituents are advantaged in the political process. They can lobby on more issues and they can lobby more extensively on the issues they choose to take up.

Citizens look unfavorably upon lobbying because they recognize that interest groups pursue policy goals which are best for their constituents, not necessarily what is best for the nation. Every time an industry group lobbies government for a tax break, that policy change comes at the expense of taxpayers who must make up the shortfall in revenue. Every trade advantage granted to lobbyists works to the detrimient of consumers who must pay the higher costs associated with reduced competition. In one poll of Americans, 64 percent said they regarded lobbying as a threat to democracy in their country. People conveniently ignore that the lobbies they belong to pursue selfish goals as well, believing instead their groups are working for the public good.

1. Strategies and Tactics

In studying lobbying political scientists have tried to determine what works best. They have looked at both strategies—broad plans of attack—as well as the tactics—the specific means of communicating with policy makers. Yet in spite of a considerable amount of research, scholars have made limited progress in assessing lobbying effectiveness. Such studies run into three difficult methodological problems. First, policy makers are loathe to admit that they were influenced by lobbyists or interest groups. An affirmative answer diminishes them and could even call into question their integrity. John Kingdon found that legislators he talked to discounted the importance of lobbyists in influencing their voting decisions, but said they were highly influenced by their constituents. On highly visible and important issues, legislators can easily determine how their constituents feel. On complicated and less salient issues, lobbyists help inform legislators and agency officials how their constituents and attentive publics feel. In short, we cannot take this rejection of lobbyists’ influence at face value.

Second, much if not most lobbying is directed at policy makers who are already sympathetic to the group’s goals. The most critical issue facing lobbyists may be getting sympathizers to actively work on an issue. Lobbying is also directed at fence sitters and those who may have even expressed some doubts about what the group is doing. Sometimes policymakers approach interest groups and lobby them to back a proposal they want to initiate. What is the common metric to measure these different kinds of endeavors, each of which is hard to measure on its own?

Third, the world is a complicated place and lobbying never takes place in a vacuum. Legislators and agency officials are influenced by many different factors including public opinion, political party leadership, the president, and the media. Distinguishing interest group influence from all these other sources has proved to be an intractable methodological problem.

Despite the lack of success in measuring lobbying effectiveness, scholars have succeeded in mapping out the array of tactics used by groups and at developing rich explanations of the underlying strategies. At the risk of oversimplifying the interest group world, lobbying tactics fall within two broad categories. Direct lobbying includes those tactics which involve immediate contact between interest group lobbyists or members and policy makers. This is what we usually think of when we see a reference to lobbying: lobbyists meeting with legislators or administrators. Filing a court suit or an administrative petition also falls within this category as it is a direct effort to persuade policy makers with an argument presented by a group representative. Direct lobbying of policy makers is ubiquitous—98 percent of Washington-based lobbies use it. All lobbyists have their set of the facts and summarizing them in conversation with harried policy makers who have little time to read the substantive literature is seen as critical. Once the European Union began making important decisions, lobbyists began to crowd Brussels. By one estimate there are over 10,000 lobbyists who work the EU parliament and the number is surely growing.

Lobbying the public utilizes a second set of tactics. It is frequently the case that interest group leaders come to the conclusion that policy makers will not do the right thing until the climate of public opinion changes. This is particularly true when key decision makers hold views at odds with the interest group, or don’t see the problem as a high priority. In large countries reaching the whole public is difficult and expensive, so efforts are usually tailored to attentive publics—segments of the population that are more likely to respond to tactics such as advertising, direct mail, and membership alerts asking individuals to write to their legislators. Lobbying organizations also make concerted efforts to gain journalists’ attention in the hopes of stimulating them to do a story and, thus, generate publicity for the cause. Animal rights groups in the UK, for example, have often resorted to histrionics to generate coverage of their issue.

Interest groups will often mix the two basic strategies in trying to influence government decisions. Members of an organization will receive a letter, fax, phone call, or email asking them to write to their legislators, usually asking them to vote to pass or defeat a piece of legislation before them. At the same time lobbyists for the same group are talking to legislators, reinforcing the message being sent by constituents who are group members. Scholars have long argued that organizations with large memberships are advantaged in the legislative process. This advantage grows when the constituency is one that is easy to mobilize. Memberships that are easy to mobilize are, of course, those which are composed of individuals high in education, status, and income. But it is not just high status individuals who are advantaged. Some lobbying ‘groups’ are corporations and they have deep enough pockets to fund substantial lobbying operations. Other interest groups are trade associations composed of corporations and are thus able to draw on the substantial resources of many companies within their organization.

2. Money in Politics

The advantage of social class in interest group politics goes beyond the help lobbyists get from having members who are cooperative when asked to write to policy makers. Interest groups go to members and donors and ask them for money to be used to strengthen the organization’s lobbying efforts. Donations can be translated directly into resources which can be used in their advocacy campaigns. Money can buy more lobbyists, more researchers, more advertising, and more issue alerts sent to members asking them to communicate with legislators.

Money can also be used by interest groups to donate funds to political parties and individual candidates for office. The underlying philosophy here is that the best lobbying tactic is not to try to influence legislators or prime ministers who are already in office, but to put people in office who are already poised to work on behalf of the issues the group cares about. Each country has its own rules governing interest group donations. In Japan, business interests are the principal financial support for various factions within the Diet. In the USA, interest groups channel contributions in two ways. First, money to candidates for Congress comes from political action committees, most of which are tied to existing lobbies. Second, interest groups can contribute directly to political parties. Despite the controversy over campaign money and its role in elections, political scientists run into the same kind of methodological problems when they try to determine how effective this tactic is. Legislators who receive donations from an interest group are more likely to vote the way the group wants, but that can’t be taken as evidence that they were influenced. Most contributions are given to incumbent legislators or candidates who the group has reason to believe are sympathetic to at least some of the goals of the organization. Can we say that labor unions in the UK buy the votes of Labour Party MP’s? The unions provide the financial support for the party, but what type of people choose to run for office under the Labour Party banner? In the US scholars have had a particularly difficult time sorting out the complexities of linking PAC contributions to voting behavior by members of Congress. Summarizing the research, political scientist John Wright concluded that ‘Empirical evidence about the influence of PAC contributions on congressional voting is filled with ambiguity and apparent contradiction’ (Wright 1985).

3. Stability or Change?

Although interest groups are an enduring and persistent part of democratic politics, they frequently face significant changes in their political environment. In parliamentary systems with proportional representation, for example, new political movements can quickly metamorphize into new political parties. The lobbying organizations for that cause may have to switch quickly from protest politics to campaign politics. In the American context, with its stable twoparty system, the challenge more recently has been the unprecedented growth of interest groups. Looking back on his career, one member of the House remarked ‘When I first came to Congress there were five major financial trade groups, but now there are at least five times that. Now if you’re trying to satisfy all the trade groups, it’s pretty hard to do.’

For present-day lobbyists the most significant tactical decision may be figuring out what to do just to get noticed. With so many lobbyists working on the same issue, how do the lobbyists from a single organization convince legislators and their staffers that their organization is one to consult with and to work up drafts of legislation with? The competition between lobbyists has put an even greater premium on expertise. Although well-connected lobbyists are always helpful, policy expertise is a particularly important trait of effective lobbyists.

An interesting question that has emerged is whether the new technologies are changing interest group politics. The new technologies have certainly made it easier for interest group organizations to reach their members and attentive publics. Today communication can be virtually instantaneous. If events change rapidly lobbyists in the capital can mobilize their members quickly to let policy makers know that voters back home have noticed what’s going on and they are upset about it. Interest groups have also taken advantage of the Internet, establishing their own web sites to serve as vehicles for soliciting members, advertising their views, and facilitating the retrieval of documents by sympathesizers around the country. Another use of the Web is that it facilitates the organization of new groups. Small constituencies with modest resources can use the economies of the Internet to reach those concerned with their issue and to generate communication among themselves.

Yet for all the changes that have taken place in government and in telecommunications, the fundamental nature of lobbying remains relatively stable. At its core lobbyists work assiduously to mobilize their followers and to bring information to the attention of policy makers. Although how those tasks are carried out changes over time, these changes have not revolutionized the process.

As political science has become increasingly sophisticated and the discipline has placed greater emphasis on precise measurement of complex phenomena, lobbying has remained a particularly difficult nut to crack. Assessing the effectiveness of different types of lobbying or different lobbying campaigns continues to be a formidable methodological problem. We know a lot more about many facets of interest group politics, especially in understanding how and why people join organizations. Research on lobbying, however, has made only limited progress.


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