What Does a Lobbyist Really Do?

Many of us think we know what a lobbyist does. The term “lobbyist” conjures up an image of some slick operator, with a fancy office on K Street in Washington, DC. Someone who spends their working days wining and dining Congressmen or state legislators, buying favors, and raking in tons of cash in the process. Now, there may be some lobbyists out there who fit that description, but there really is much more to the profession than has typically been portrayed by politicians demanding we “drain the swamp.”

President Ulysses S. Grant is said to have coined the term “lobbyist” due to his attempts to escape the environment of the White House in order to visit a Washington D.C. hotel. He began referring to the individuals who found him in the lobby and asking for favors as “lobbyists”, based on the activity and the location. In more current terminology the idea of what it means to lobby is to advocate on behalf of another party for the purpose of influencing an individual involved in the process of government in legislation. Understanding the American system of government involves understanding the participants both inside and outside the three branches of government. Following are some useful things to know about this important player.

State vs Federal

The first point to recognize is that most lobbyists aren’t employed in Washington, DC. Of course, DC has plenty. These are the lobbyists most people think of when they hear the word. These are the swamp creatures referred to in political ads, and they get a really bad rap. But did you know that the majority of lobbyists never step foot in D.C? These lobbyists advocate on behalf of their clients in state capitals across the country. If a company is big enough and has business interests in multiple states, they may have a lobbying team in each of those states. Many corporations will hire a lobbyist in each state because they are looking for someone who has existing relationships with those legislators and knows the landscape of that individual state. Legislators can be skeptical of people they don’t know, and they tend to be much more receptive to arguments from someone they know (and like).

In House vs Multi-client

There are two main varieties of lobbyist out there: In house government relations and multi-client. Many companies are so large and have so many issues related to legislation, they feel the need to hire their own in house lobbying or government relations team. These teams may be all in one corporate office and travel to individual states as needed, or they may be spread out across several states. In house lobbyists are usually salaried employees, and have only that one client, with focus of their work only on the issues impacting that particular industry.

Multi-client lobbyists, on the other hand, represent multiple clients with varied interests. They may have hundreds of clients, thus, requiring them to be well versed in hundreds of industries. Multi-client lobbyists usually are self-employed, or are employed by a small to moderately sized firm or large law firm. Those self-employed multi-client lobbyists are paid by their client directly. Compensation is typically a retainer structure, occasionally including “productivity bonuses.” Let’s say your organization wants a bill passed to require stricter licensing regulations for a competing industry. Your organization may offer the lobbyist an incentive bonus to get the bill introduced and through legislative committee this year, with another bonus if the bill is passed and becomes law.

Other corporations may employ a hybrid strategy of both in house government relations and local multi-client lobbyists. Let’s use Uber for an example. Uber is a major, international corporation with varied interest internationally, on the federal level, in different states, and municipalities. Uber employs an in house government relations strategy, with Uber employees serving as a full time government relations/lobbying team. This team then reaches out to and hires multi-client lobbyists in the states where they need advocacy. Basically, the corporate team is determining the needs and the strategy, while the in state contractors are the “boots on the ground.” Sometimes the folks from corporate show up in the state capitals as well, but only when guided by their local counterparts

Buying Favors

The influence of money in politics is a reality that cannot be ignored. However, many people have misconceptions about what this really means. It is sometimes the assumption that politicians are getting paid off by lobbyists and big corporations to do their bidding. Well, that’s not exactly what happens. The one thing we know about politicians, with rare exception, is they want to get re-elected. Money is needed for campaigns to run, and sometimes, a lot of that money comes from lobbyists. No money contributed by lobbyists goes to the elected official, but rather to their campaigns. Your elected officials aren’t getting rich off lobbyist donations. Keep in mind, it is completely illegal to donate to a political campaign in exchange for votes or access. It seems to reason though, that if someone has “been a friend” to your industry, you would be more prone to donate to them. Many states have also outlawed lobbyists gifts directly to elected officials, and most of those that haven’t done away with the practice altogether have gifts limited to small value. What this means is that the fancy lobbyist dinners and sporting events are mostly a thing of the past, but when an official has “friends” that come to their fundraising events and contribute funds to be there, they are likely more prone to listen to their concerns.

You Probably Have One (Or ARE One)

While everybody likes to think of lobbyists as evil, most people probably don’t realize that they might actually employ one. If you don’t employ a lobbyist directly, you most likely have one advocating on your behalf in an indirect way. Almost any industry, especially industries with professional associations, employ lobbyists. If you are a teacher, a doctor, an attorney, a nurse, a home school parent, a union member, a farmer, a car salesman, or even a grocery worker, there is a lobbyist out there advocating on behalf of your profession or industry. Almost every kind of work is related to lobbying activity in some way.  Further, if you have ever had a problem and tried to convince your local elected official to fix it by visiting their office or attending their event, you have been lobbying your own interests. While, you aren’t technically considered a lobbyist by profession at this point, the actions are essentially the same. The big difference is that you are advocating on your OWN behalf rather than on that of an organization. Citizen lobbying is often the most effective kind of advocacy. Remember that point earlier about politicians wanting to get elected? Politicians don’t typically care so much about who a lobbyist is voting for in the next election.  As their constituent, you are ultimately responsible for their re-election or their loss, and listening to your concerns and doing what is in your interests is more powerful than a paid lobbyist contribution.