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The History of Lobbying in the United States

Updated on October 28, 2012

Lobbying: "to attempt to influence or sway (as a public official) toward a desired action."

Merriam-Webster Dictionary | Source

What is Lobbying?

As shared above, lobbying in politics is essentially the act of influencing a public official to take a desired action. In America today, lobbying is a huge business with an estimated 11,700 paid lobbyists and transactions totaling an estimated $1.6+ billion in 2012, according to Top lobbyists, many of whom are lawyers, make as much as $1 million in salary per year, all in the name of promoting the interests of their industry in Washington.

If you talk to people in the industry or read about it Online, you'll hear that lobbyists perform a valuable function in government and that without them, government would come to a screeching halt. Proponents say that lobbyists have the ability to boil complex issues down into simple language, educate legislators, and ease their work load. Without lobbyists, our congress men and women would never be able to keep up with the dizzying complexity of the needs of the American people.

I think this all sounds great. My issue is the huge amounts of money being exchanged. If lobbyists only conducted analyses and presented them to government officials without any money involved, it would be much easier to swallow. But to me, this sounds like legalized bribery.

Unfortunately, lobbying is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution under the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Never mind that this assembly and petitioning comes with huge amounts of money and gifts! The supreme court has taken care of that by ruling that money is free speech.

So how did we get to this point? Did our founding fathers intend this country to operate with such a strong focus on money in government?

The Origins of Lobbying

Our founding fathers never intended corporations to have such a large influence on government. In fact, in 1816 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter expressing his desire to crush the power of moneyed corporations. In the early 20th century, a law was written to ban corporate contributions to politics. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court overruled this law in 2009.

The origins of the actual word "lobbying" in America are said to come from local politics in 1830's Ohio, with the word "lobbyist" appearing in Washington in the 1840's. But even earlier than that, the word was used in to describe people who came to the lobby of the House of Commons in Great Britain to petition for their interests.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the first recorded lobbyist was a man named William Hull who was hired by veterans from Massachusetts to collect back pay they felt the government owed them. In the 1850's Thomas Colt handed out free pistols in Washington in an effort to get his patent on revolvers extended. By 1876, there were enough lobbyists that the House required them to register and in 1946 Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, which called for much more disclosure on the part of lobbyists and recipients.

Top Corporate Lobbyists for 2011

Amount Spent in 2011
General Electric
National Association of Realtors
Blue Cross/Blue Shield
American Medical Association
American Hospital Association
Conoco Philips
Pharmaceutical Researchers & Manufacturers
National Cable & Telecommunications Assoc
Source: Center for Responsive Politics;

The Effects of Lobbying In America

According to the 2009 book, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why, lobbyists don't have nearly as big an effect on Washington as most people believe, at least not in the short term.

The book took a look at about 100 randomly selected issues and found that the advocates on each side of an issue tend to gather resources that wash each other out. Therefore, the book claims that about 60% of the time, nothing happens and the status quo is maintained. However, the book also states that the status quo already reflects the tremendous influence the wealthy have on our government. They found that a great predictor of success for a lobbying group was to have the support of a high ranking official or even the President.

So does this mean that lobbying is okay after all? Definitely not since it still largely favors the wealthy, who tend to represent both sides of an issue. It's clear that the interests of the poor are under represented in Washington, thanks to the exchange of money that is lobbying.

Finally, if the end result is status quo, who really benefits from the exchange of money? It's the government officials who are getting bribed. This is why there will never be a law banning lobbying in this country. The very people who are benefiting are the people who would vote on this issue. What is that chance they'd vote to ban something that benefits them? Very, very small.

Which best describes how you feel about lobbying?

See results

For a hilarious look at lobbying, see the movie Thank You for Smoking


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    • unverm profile image

      unverm 4 years ago

      Such a great gap between lobbying and solving the human beings' problems, moral values, justice, honesty, entrust! Thank you for sharing this amazing hub. "Legalized bribery", it is the exact summary of the topic.

    • SD Dickens profile image

      SD Dickens 5 years ago

      Hi Billybuc - I agree...lobbying is the root cause of our current problems in government.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I have written about this several times, and I can't be swayed from my opinion. The corruption of politics can be directly traced to lobbyists and special interest groups. Money should be banned from lobbying and strictly enforced. Until that happens, the interests of the common citizen do not stand a chance compared to the interests of big corporations.

      Good job on this hub!