Lobbying and Lobbyists

Published: February 2, 2018

K Street in Washington D.C. was historically home to numerous lobbying firms. As a result, the phrase "K street" is often used as a metonym for the lobbying industry. Photograph: Corruption Watch. 

A Simple Definition of Lobbying and Lobbyists

"Lobbying" refers to efforts to influence members of the government to take actions that are favorable to a particular organization.

Such actions may include the creation of legislation, the use of executive actions, the imposition, removal, or weakening of regulations, or the appointment of certain individuals to particular positions in government. 

Individuals who are retained by organizations to lobby on their behalf are called "lobbyists." 

How We Know What Lobbyists Are Up To?

Lobbyists are legally required to fill out and submit to Congress lobbyist disclosure forms which detail who they have lobbied, on whose behalf, and on what issues. 

The completed forms are made public and used by the media to assess the type of lobbying activities that are taking place in Washington at a particular time or by a particular organization or sector. 

Who Engages In Lobbying and On What Kinds of Issues?

The clients of lobbyists can range from large multinational corporations to smaller non-profit social purpose organizations and everyone in between. 

The following are some examples of organizations that have engaged in lobbying and what they lobbied on:

1) Lobbyists retained by Koch Industries, a behemoth U.S. fossil fuel conglomerate, lobbied senators in 2017 to facilitate the regulatory capture of the EPA by confirming Scott Pruitt to lead it

2) Lobbyists retained by Lockheed Martin, a weapons manufacturing company, lobbied the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Navy, the Department of the Army, the Department of the Air Force, and members of Congress on issues related to national defense policy and spending in 2017

3) Lobbyists retained by the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization, lobbied members of Congress on issues related to the rights of whistleblowers in 2017

So What's the Problem With Lobbying?


Because hiring an army of lobbyists is expensive and the effective use of lobbying requires a deep understanding of the ins and outs of government, it is overwhelmingly done by large private organizations such as multinational corporations rather than by small mom and pop shops or social purpose organizations. 

For example, consider the fossil fuel industry.


In 2017 Exxon Mobil alone spent millions of dollars lobbying for policies that would increase its profitability. Chevron spent in the millions as well. As did British fossil fuel company Beyond Petroleum's American subsidiary.  


Tally up the combined lobbying expenditures of all the fossil fuel companies active in the United States and your talking about millions and millions of dollars worth of influence that environmental groups, worker's rights groups, or other opposing interests cannot afford to purchase. 

The end result is that lobbying, in addition to the role of private funds in campaign financing, affords wealthy private interests with disproportionate influence on our government and degrades the principle of one person, one vote. 

Legal Definition of Lobbying and Lobbyists

For those readers who are interested in familiarizing themselves with the precise legal definition of the term, we have provided this information here; those readers who do not wish to get into the legal details may ignore this section.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, as codified in Chapter 26 of Title 2 of the U.S. Code, provides us with the legal definitions of the terms "lobbying" and "lobbyists."

The U.S. Code defines lobbying as:

"any oral or written communication (including an electronic communication) to a covered executive branch official or a covered legislative branch official that is made on behalf of a client with regard to (i) the formulation, modification, or adoption of Federal legislation (including legislative proposals); (ii) the formulation, modification, or adoption of a Federal rule, regulation, Executive order, or any other program, policy, or position of the United States Government; (iii) the administration or execution of a Federal program or policy (including the negotiation, award, or administration of a Federal contract, grant, loan, permit, or license); or (iv) the nomination or confirmation of a person for a position subject to confirmation by the Senate" and "any efforts in support of such contacts, including preparation and planning activities, research and other background work that is intended, at the time it is performed, for use in contacts, and coordination with the lobbying activities of others."

- 2 U.S.C § 1602 (7) and (8)

As per 2 U.S.C. § 1602 (3) and (5), the phrase "covered executive branch official" includes the president, the vice president, any officer or employee  - minus independent contractors and volunteers -  in the Executive Office of the President and other specified lower level staff in the executive branch.  

And, as per 2 U.S.C. § 1602 (4) and (5), the phrase "covered legislative branch official" includes members of Congress, any employee - minus independent contractors and volunteers - of a member of Congress or a congressional committee and other specified staff in the legislative branch.  

Certain communications, such as a member of the media contacting a covered official for the purpose of gathering news and contacts by foreign agents, are exempted from being considered lobbying by 2 U.S.C. § 1602 (8B)

Given the above definition of "lobbying," a "lobbyist" is thus defined by 2 U.S.C. § 1602 (10) as any individual who is employed or retained by a client for financial or other compensation to engage in lobbying on their behalf.


However, if an individual providing services to a client spends less than 20% of that time engaged in lobbying activities over a 3-month period, that individual is exempted from being designated a "lobbyist."