By Matthew Wheeler

So, just exactly what is lobbying? Many people ask this question as there is a wide-cross section of beliefs and supposed understanding of “lobbyists” and the advocacy profession. The United States Senate, therefore federal law, defines lobbying as “the practice of trying to persuade legislators to propose, pass, or defeat legislation or to change existing laws. A lobbyist may work for a group, organization, or industry, and presents information on legislative proposals to support his or her clients’ interests.” Although this is a comprehensive definition, how does this all come together and relate to governmental affairs and the “real world?”

When speaking with students of political science, I ask that students think of lobbying as the bridge between the government (public sector) and everyone else (nonprofit and private sectors). Elected officials, namely legislators, come from a diverse set of professions, and upon their election, are expected to understand ALL aspects of public policy. To name a few, this includes issue areas of transportation, social welfare, healthcare, education, financial management, public safety, construction and development. For someone who may have been an educator, or perhaps an attorney by profession, it is hard to instantly become an expert on housing policy, or the federal budget, or any of the other diverse issue areas that come across their desk on a day-to-day basis. Likewise, professional organizations and trades do not understand the inner-workings of the government and the obstacles that may exist between their interests and desired public policies from the government’s perspective. Legislative advocates, or lobbyists, on behalf of their clients, understand the inner workings of the government and can in essence, translate between their clients and the government. Lobbyists may not necessarily be familiar with ALL aspects of their clients’ professions, nor the exact intricacies of governmental entities (though they know most intricacies), however they do know how to make each stakeholder, the government and the client, understand one another with a desired outcome of mutual benefice for both.

The term “lobbyist” is indeed an odd term, but it comes from a very interesting story that dates back to the mid-1800s in Washington, D.C. The Willard Hotel (now the Willard InterContinental Washington) is situated at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, directly across the street from the White House. The Willard was a favorite spot of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77) for afternoon brandy and cigars in the lobby of this elegant, yet conveniently located, hotel. Members of the public who wished to approach President Grant for assistance or a favor would oftentimes wait in the hotel lobby for the President to arrive. President Grant coined the term “lobbyist” referring to these very individuals.

Similar to the “tongue in cheek” jokes about politicians, lobbyists have garnered a particularly unflattering perception within the public at-large, namely due to the actions of a few poor actors who at one time were associated with the advocacy profession. However, lobbyists perform a vital service to the public and are able to compensate for much of the information that the government itself is not able to furnish or create. Many, if not all, of the leading philanthropic organizations in the world retain the services of lobbyists, such as the United Way, the American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society. Lobbying is not just limited to large corporations and for-profit entities, although they certainly boast their share of paid advocates. Lobbyists come in all shapes and sizes. Some are unpaid volunteers passionate about a particular cause, such as “Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” while some are highly paid representatives of Fortune 500 corporations and the public sector.

The need for lobbying has grown, and will continue to grow over time as the size of federal and state governments increase alongside their respective budgets. As budgetary and policy issues have become increasingly complex, governmental entities and the for-profit and non-profit sectors have grown reliant upon lobbyists and the valuable services they provide.

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