In politics, lobbying, persuasion, or interest representation is the act of lawfully attempting to influence the actions, policies, or decisions of government officials, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies. 

                The IRS says no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying).  A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.

                The House of Representatives says The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 requires active lobbying registrants and individual lobbyists to file a semi-annual report of certain contributions along with certification that the filer understands the gift and travel rules of both the House and the Senate. Registrants and each of their lobbyists who were active for all, or part of the semi-annual reporting period must file separate reports detailing their contributions, including FECA, honorary, Presidential Inaugural Committee, Presidential Library, and certain payments for event costs.

                Persuaders who are not 501( c) (3) entities, not hanging around the U.S. Capitol, and do not admit being lobbyists, are political enablers in dark suits. Some of them frequently travel to Ukraine or other troubled places, like Palm Beach, and contend that everything is for sale, and nothing is beneath them, or their masters.

                Our largest city has a “Lobbying Bureau.” It’s conveniently located in the Office of the New York City Clerk’s Office and “Works with lobbyists and clients to ensure compliance with the Lobbying Law to ensure compliance with the Lobbying Law to promote transparency in government.”[1] So there is our first ethical norm in lobbying—transparency.

                Google openly defines Transparency “the condition of being transparent.”[2] It is rooted in medieval Latin as “shining through.” There are doubters today who might mock the lobbyist profession as shining through, although they almost always shine on something. 

                The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University is widely accepted as a reliable authority on lobbyists, their clients, and the “periodic scandals that make Americans skeptical about the role of lobbying in a democracy.”[3] That coast to coast skepticism about lobbying stems from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances. This protection assumes that people should be involved in the decisions that affect them and that advocacy for a variety of causes is a crucial part of good decision making.”

                The Markkula Center knows well the ethical foundation of lobbying as vigorous public debate necessary for informed decision making. Ethical dilemmas related to lobbying tend to arise when various behaviors by lobbyists and lawmakers undermine the fairness and transparency of that process and do not contribute to the common good. And that is the second ethical norm, fairness.

                It is fundamentally unfair when a lobbyists is paid by a client to engage a policy maker in a “favorable way or reward him or her after a vote with valuable considerations.” Even when outright gifts are outlawed, there are always subtler ways to “buy” undue influence.

                Take the NRA. Please, take the NRA. It formed the Institute for Legislative Action—its lobbying arm, to influence public policy against the majority of gun control efforts. It is neither transparent nor fair, and apparently has never heard of the Common Good.

                The third ethical norm on the Markkula Center’s website is the Common Good. As you would expect, it categorizes lobbyists as advocates—they represent one side of issues. It says lobbyists can be fairly compared to lawyers in the judicial arena. Lawyers provide courts with points of view on legal issues. That is also what lobbyists do. The difference is that lawyers advise, debate, and hold forth in open court. Lobbyists do their work in private offices, and off the record.

                The National Conference of State Legislatures offers an equivocal definition. “Yes, No, Maybe So, What’s Unethical About Lobbying? Only about eight per cent of  those surveyed feel that lobbyists are more honest than average people, according to a Gallup poll conducted annually since 2002. Nearly 60% of Americans consider them to have low or very low ethical standards. The public perception of those in the government affairs business consistently beats out salespeople, members of Congress and lawyers for the honor of being considered the least-trusted professionals.”[4]

                Nonetheless, lobbyists are not without reputable supporters. The NCSL insists, “Ethics rules preserve boundaries between lobbyists and public officials to protect both the public’s confidence and the integrity of governmental institutions. Just as unrestricted lobbying might cause significant harm, over-regulation deprives the system of valuable perspectives and policymaking expertise.”

                “” is an internet site in open support of professional  lobbyists. “Lobbyists are hired by a special interest group to represent their interests to Congress. The term ‘lobbyist’ harkens back to the days when people hung around in lobbies waiting to get a word in with legislators heading to vote. All kinds of groups hire lobbyists — from corporations and private companies to nonprofits and unions — to try to persuade the government to pass legislation that’s favorable to them. There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying. Lobbying encourages people to play an active role in their government — it’s protected by the First Amendment as our right to petition the government. The problem is when lobbyists use money to buy influence with our government. Lobbyists today funnel millions of dollars into the hands of Congress. Because they’ve become dependent on money from lobbyists to fund their political careers, Congress ends up passing laws to keep the lobbyists and their clients happy, instead of laws that benefit the American people. Those of us who can’t afford to hire a lobbyist or make big campaign contributions are out of luck.”[5]

                Out of luck is not an ethical imperative. It’s a national affliction that will outlast the ages. As long as we have lobbies well suited to hanging around, and lobbyists waiting to get a word in with a legislator, we will be out on a dimly lit street. Our bad luck.    






Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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