ProPublica is one of the most valuable sources of investigative journalism. I send them a regular contribution. They are truly on the side of the public, not the special interests.

This is the latest entry in their series called “A User’s Guide to Democracy.” To save our democracy, we have to understand who is using big money to buy influence. Our votes can counter their money, but only if we are well-informed. ProPublica is indispensable as a source for the information we need to do our jobs as voters. The same phenomena of big money buying legislative votes operates in education, as I show in my new book SLAYING GOLIATH.


A User’s Guide to Democracy

When you hear the word “lobbying,” you might conjure up the image of tobacco lobbyists buying fancy steak dinners to curry favor with legislators.

You know, like this. 

So, why do we allow it?

The right to lobby our representatives — trying to convince the government to do something that you want done, or not to do something that you don’t want done — is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. There, it’s described as the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” which can take on a whole range of activities: from calling or emailing your representative to staging a sit-in outside their offices. In that sense, anyone can engage in lobbying.

Also, lobbying goes way back to the very first session of Congress, according to the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (also an oral historian of the Senate’s history and operations). During the First Congress in 1789, Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania wrote in his diary that New York City merchants delayed the passage of a tariff bill by lavishing congressmen with “treats, dinners [and] attentions.”

Lobbying, however, has evolved over the years into a big business. Moneyed interest groups hire professional lobbyists to get elected officials to take up their causes based on their depth of experience, relationships to lawmakers and access to insider information. With considerable influence over Congress, today we’re going to focus on the pros.

Who are lobbyists?

Contrary to popular belief, lobbyists aren’t employed exclusively by big business. Any issue that you can imagine having a constituency has paid lobbyists working on their behalf, from the Humane Society (whose lobby works to pass animal protection laws) to the Balloon Council (whose 2012 lobbying efforts aided the passage of the Helium Stewardship Act that addressed a shortage in helium by mining a helium reserve for the future).

But it’s not these smaller advocacy groups and nonprofits that are doing the majority of spending. Without question, the heftiest lobbying budgets are managed by corporate and industrial behemoths — with an outsized influence compared with that of average Americans. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’, these organizations have spent the most from 1998 to 2018:

Top spenders listYeah … a staggering amount of money is being spent on lobbyists. But for these industries, it can be a solid investment.

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 is a good example.

When President Barack Obama first started pitching his landmark health care legislation, he raised the idea of a public health insurance option run by the government, an idea that would have pushed out private insurers — and which was vehemently opposed by the American Medical Association. The final version of the legislation, which was approved by the AMA (one of the top spenders among groups that spend the most on lobbying lawmakers), established the creation of online marketplaces requiring individuals and small businesses to purchase private insurance plans instead.

What are they spending all that money on?

There is no uniform approach to how lobbyists get the job done for their clients. Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Realtors and Planned Parenthood may pay lobbyists to perform a variety of tasks, including conducting intensive policy research, keeping a close watch on any bills that could affect their interests, helping to draft sample legislation, cultivating relationships with influential lawmakers at cocktail parties and other Washington events, and meeting face-to-face with members and their staffs, repeatedly, to advocate on their behalf.

There are rules, though!

But it’s not like lobbyists can do anything to sway lawmakers (just ask Jack Abramoff); there have been strict limitations on their activities. According to Byrd, the first effort to regulate lobbyists dates back to 1876, when the House of Representatives required all lobbyists to register, a rule that still holds today. Since then, registered lobbyists have had to adhere to certain guidelines under the law:

  • Gifts to lawmakers or their staff are strictly prohibited.
  • Registered lobbyists are required to file quarterly reports on their contacts with elected officials and how much they were paid to make said contact.
  • Lobbyists must file semiannual reports disclosing contributions made to elected officials or political campaigns.

What lobbying issues are your representatives known for?

Thanks to these lobbying disclosure rules, we’re able to learn more about the organizations that try to influence lawmakers. ProPublica’s Represent Lobbying Registrations database (searchable by an organization name, a lobbying firm’s name, an individual lobbyist’s name and policy issues) makes it easy to sift through thousands of lobbying registration disclosures and find data that’s relevant to your representative.

While the database won’t specifically show whom your members have met with, you can plug in your legislators’ names to find out whom their former staffers are now lobbying for.  

What turns up will tell you if he or she has a particular expertise in certain policy areas — and that they may attract certain lobbyists based on their relationship with their former boss. Give it a try here.

You can also use search the lobbying database by policy issue to find advocacy organizations working on issues you’re interested in.

We’ve come to the end of the User’s Guide to Democracy — but, hopefully, this marks the start of your increased participation in our system of government. From Represent to the FEC Itemizer, you have tools to track what your representatives are actually doing and who is influencing them, as well as tactics to hold them accountable. Don’t hesitate to use them. And, remember: Congress works for you.

Cynthia Gordy Giwa
Proud ProPublican

P.S. Did you know ProPublica has a whole bunch of other newsletters? You can sign up for any you’re interested in on the preferences page. You can also click reply to this email to tell me what you thought of the series!


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