Basics of Lobbying

The practice of lobbying has come under renewed scrutiny in light of the federal investigation into possible corruption on Capitol Hill. The involvement of former high-power lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the probe has raised questions about what constitutes legal and illegal lobbying.

ConstitutionLobbying, or seeking to influence the passage or defeat of legislation, is not only legal, it is protected by the Constitution under the first amendment which guarantees the right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Writing a letter to a representative, signing a petition and speaking at a town hall forum are examples of lobbying in its most basic form. By lobbying, constituents tell lawmakers how proposed legislation or regulations will affect their community or business.

However, as government has grown and become more complex, so has lobbying.

Professional lobbying can come at the federal or state level. At the state level, lobbying is more concentrated during certain times of year. Most state legislatures -- except for in larger states such as New York or California -- only meet for a few months out of the year. The rest of the year, state representatives live and work in their communities and are accessible and close to the issues that affect their constituents.

At the federal level, lawmakers spend more time in Washington, D.C., deal with larger national issues that they may or may not be intimately familiar with, and often the stakes are higher. A single federal regulation can cost an industry millions of dollars. In recent years, companies, interest groups and unions have increased their lobbying budgets, and lobbyist consultancy has become a booming industry. So many lobbyists have opened offices on K Street near the Capitol that the address has become synonymous with the industry.

Lobbyists are often lawyers, former legislators or legislative staffers, hired either by an organization to forward their interests or as a consultant for multiple clients.

Although lobbying is constitutionally protected, it is subject to legal restrictions and registration requirements. There are different rules for different types of lobbyists. State lobbyists must adhere to different rules than federal lobbyists, and Congress treats lobbying by businesses differently than lobbying by tax-exempt charities.

Except for nonpartisan educational activities, charities are limited in the amount of lobbying they can do. Corporate interests, on the other hand, can lobby as much as they want, but they have a different set of accounting rules for their lobbying activities, as opposed to their other corporate activities.

Lobbyists contend they provide a valuable service not only to their clients, but to legislators by educating them about complex or industry-specific issues. For example, telecommunication lobbyists can keep lawmakers up to date on the latest technology innovations and changes in the rapidly growing industry. Or lobbyists can arrange fact-finding trips to plants or research facilities for lawmaker to better understand an industry.

It is not uncommon for lobbyists to draft language for legislation and give it to lawmakers or their staff for consideration. It also is a common practice for lawmakers to distribute proposed legislation to lobbyists of the affected industries or interest groups for their input. Another way lawmakers obtain information is to invite lobbyists to testify before committee meetings.

Trade groups, associations and special interest groups hire a staff of lobbyists to promote their interests. But many lobbyists work as consultants and hire their services out to clients. Their client list can include everything from a business to a foreign country. The value these lobbyists provide is access. To make their pitch, lobbyists often meet directly with legislators by going to their offices or by inviting them to discuss the issue at a restaurant, sports event or conference.

Most of the concerns about corruption, including those raised by the current Justice Department investigation involving Abramoff, stem from the areas where money and lobbying overlap, such as meals, trips and fund-raisers.

Federal lobbyists are subject to rules that limit the amount of gifts to lawmakers or the costs of meals to $50. But a lobbyist can get around the monetary limit by arranging for a company to offer a lawmaker a ride on its corporate jet, for example. In this case, the lobbyist does not pay for the trip, the company does. And although many congressional trips have serious purposes, a lobbyist also might arrange for a nonprofit group to pay for a lawmaker to go to a golf resort. As long as the lobbyist does not pay for the trip, it does not technically fall under the ban.

Campaign finance laws limit the amount of money lobbyists, corporations and individuals can give a candidate. However, rules for political fundraising are less strict. So even though there are limits on individual gifts, a lobbyist can organize an event that raises money from attendees and bundle the smaller contributions.

Lobbyists who were once legislators or staff members are highly valued for their connections and their access to areas unavailable to most. Former members of Congress retain access to members-only facilities such as the dining room, gym and chamber floors.

And lobbyists can pursue indirect forms of lobbying, such as meeting with reporters to explain their side of an issue or by purchasing advertisements.

-- By Anne Bell, Online NewsHour