Sunday, November 27, 2011

Americans are often perplexed by the idea of lobbying and special interests within Congress. On one hand, special interests and lobbyists represent a way for citizens to mobilize and to have their opinions heard by the American Congress. On the other hand, Americans are very skeptical of legislators’ intentions with special interest groups, in fact 75% of Americans feel that legislators care more about serving special interests than the interests of the American people (Smith, Roberts, & Vander Wielen, 2009). This blog will examine three videos which exemplify the impact of lobbyists and special interest groups on Congress.

These groups represent a large array of interests including companies, universities, local governments, foreign governments, among others (Smith et al., 2009). Special interest groups are represented by a lobbyist, often previous government officials, because of their familiarity with the legal system as well as current Congressional members and staff. One of the largest categories of groups that represent special interests is citizens’ groups which are comprised of individuals (Smith et al., 2009). Since the American Congress is a very intricate process involving various resources contributing to the formation of laws, our governmental system allows more room for lobbyists and special interest to leverage in lawmaking. One part of this process is the critical role of committees in the lawmaking process, which often involves lobbyists and special interests testifying before Congress. The video below is from The House Committee Energy & Commerce/Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on October 25, 2011 covering the “Legalization of Internet Gambling.”

In the video above, the witness Ernest Stevens tells an emotional tale about his grandmother and her struggles being discriminated against as a Native American. Ernest is representing the “National Indian Gaming Association,” on behalf of many tribes, and he uses this emotional tale as a mechanism to convince the Congress that the struggles that the Native Americans have experienced should ensure that the Native Americans remain at the “frontline” of the online gaming industry, entitling Native American tribes first preference of leading online gaming (Legalization of Internet Gaming). The goal of this testimonial, like other Congressional Committee testimonies is often to inspire legislators to enact legislation on behalf of their cause (Smith et al., 2009). Also, testimonials in front of Congress often encompass a mutualistic benefit to both the special interest group and the legislator, because the Congressional member is often given the most current research and information on the given topic they are inquiring. The lobbyists can also provide information about the political consequences of legislator’s actions through the eyes of the interest they represent. In this regard, lobbyists serve as an informational asset to members of Congress.

Members of Congress also seek a benefit from special interest groups by gaining campaign contributions in order to secure their seat in politics. Lobbyists often have the power to give campaign contributions and to work with political actions committees to generate campaign money for that member of Congress (Smith et al., 2009). Also, lobbyists often volunteer to host special fundraising events on behalf of the member which will likely gain support for the candidate, as well as serving as a way for the lobbyist to get closer to the member. The lobbyists also serve the legislators by “enlisting the support of lobbyists on matters before the executive branch or encourage lobbyists to take action in the courts” (Smith et al., 2009). Legislators might also ask for the lobbyist to gain the support of the American public, other congressional members, or the executive branch (Smith et al., 2009). The lobbyists often feel obliged to answer these requests, given the influence the member has on committees and within Congress.

Another purpose of special interests and lobbying is to represent the thoughts and ideas of the constituents. One increasing contribution in the business of lobbying is a surge of grassroots movements using technology and increased financial support as a way to mobilize for their cause. Grassroots movements have changed fundamentally over the years. These actions include sending letters, emails, making phone calls, marching, attending special events, etc. (Smith et al., 2009). These actions make a large impact upon legislators. Lobbyist Bill Murphy recalls the impact of small actions from grassroots movements, “The Congressman has to care that somebody out there in his district has enough power to get hundreds of people to sit down and to write a postcard or letter-because if the guy can get them to do that, he might be able to influence them in other ways. So, a member has no choice but to pay attention” (Smith et al., 2009, p.348). This form of lobbying which encompasses grassroots can be very powerful. Another form of lobbying is called AstroTurf lobbying which involves aggressive or sometimes prosthetic techniques in order to convince legislators in certain ways. Some firms use techniques such as targeting geographic areas in order to influence Congressional members (Smith et al., 2009). Another technique is to use automated calling which asks a few questions and instantly transfers the call to a legislator’s office. These forms of lobbying may not always be taken seriously by legislators, but when used effectively it could possibly portray the message that the lobbyist intended to exemplify to the member (Smith et al., 2009).

This next video below portrays an Americans for Prosperity Rally in Washington D.C. The activists rally supporting conservative financial principles that this special interest group represents. The citizens are gathered in front of the United States Capitol with many signs that are gaining legislators’ attention. Also, many legislators such as Michelle Bachman have come to show their support of this cause. She is likely identifying with lobbyists, her constituency, and certainly the interests of American’s For Prosperity. Congresswoman Bachman points out in the video how grassroots movements significantly influenced the November 2010 elections which resulted in a large gain for the Republican Party. She describes the process of how the supporters emailed, campaigned, worked, telephone, telegrammed, and many other actions to contribute to the success of the November 2010 elections. Congresswoman Bachman closes her speech saying “there is a chapter of the American History books written just with your name on it,” encouraging the success of these conservative grassroots movements (Americans for Prosperity Rally).

Another form of influential lobbying is a coalition which involves “pooling the resources of special interests and lobbyists” (Smith et al., 2009, p. 350). Coalitions sometime exist for a short period of time regarding one issue, or they can last for years, in that case the issues are likely very salient to constituents. Coalitions involve a large support base, which in turn can draw significant attention to an issue. Some examples of Coalitions are the American Medical Association, or Christian Coalition of America (Smith et al., 2009). “One study of coalition success found that a mere 58 percent of coalitions accomplished any of their goals” (Smith et al., 2009, p. 352). This may be attributed to free-riding and other problems that can occur in large coalitions. Overall, coalitions remain an important part of the lobbying industry.

Sometimes coalitions are even formed amongst legislators. Like-minded individuals within Congress have historically gathered based on their shared interests. For example, the Southern Democrats gathered as a coalition amongst Congress (Smith et al., 2009). The Democratic Study group remains very powerful in the House and is a means for democrats to work together and promote their liberal views. There are also over 200 caucuses today in existence that work to promote single issues, such as the Congressional Black Caucus which seeks to ensure that “All Americans, regardless of race, color, or creed have the chance to pursue and achieve the American Dream” ( These caucuses were originally called “legislative service organizations” in the House, but were highly criticized because money from office accounts was being spent for unauthorized purposes (Smith et al., 2009). Therefore, in 1995 these legislative service organizations were banned and congressional member organizations took their place. These congressional members organizations allow for jointly paid staff members for the CMO (Smith et al., 2009). Overall, congressional member organizations shape the way in which members work together to promote issues and ideas.

Lobbyists and special interest groups are often criticized because of their close relationships with legislators. This is a video of Grover Norquist, the President of American’s for Tax Reform, a taxpayer advocacy group founded in 1985, requested by Ronald Reagan.

This group has generated a pledge that Republican legislators often sign before or while in Congress promising not to raise taxes. This pledge has become so powerful, that currently 248 House members and 41 Senators have promised to abide by this pledge (Newsmakers with Grover Norquist). His anti-tax plan has received much criticism from Democrats and from other citizens who see the pledge as a way for him to control the Republican Party. Also, in the case of the Supercommittee, Norquist has also been criticized for halting an agreement between Republicans and Democrats because the Republicans will not compromise on raising taxes. The video shows just how much power a special interest group can have on legislators within Congress. The paper The Hill describes the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, “Signing it has become de riguer for GOP candidates running for federal or statewide office around the country” ( Not only has it influenced legislators within Congress, it has influenced the chances of Republicans becoming elected to the House.

Although Americans strongly criticize lobbying today, the use and regulation of lobbying has certainly become stricter over the ages. Throughout American History there were instances of blatant bribery and repayment when legislators voted in favor of lobbyists’ interest, today that is simply not the case (Smith et al., 2009). In 1946, Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, which required from both houses that all lobbyists must be publically registered for those who received money in order to influence legislation. In a Supreme Court decision in 1954 called United States v. Harris, the Supreme Court took into consideration the First Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment states that the people have the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (Smith et al., 2009, p. 354). Therefore, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1946 act should only require those whose principle purpose was to influence legislation to be registered, therefore, the Supreme Court opened up much room for special interests and lobbyists to act without having to show registration.

In 1995, Congress passed the Lobbying Disclosure Act which ensured that the 1946 law covered not only the Members of Congress, but also Congressional staff and other executives. It also redefined the meaning of a lobbyist. Under the LDA, if a lobbyist spent 20 percent or more of his time, or if a lobbyist received more than $5,000 in a six-month period, or $20,000 in a six-month period for organizations, then they must register as lobbyists (Smith et al., 2009). The LDA has strongly increased the number of registered lobbyists since that time. This has allowed citizens and government to keep a closer watch on legislators and lobbyists behavior. Other rules significantly monitored the number of gifts given per year, with a $100 maximum for the year from a lobbying organization, and no gift valued over $50 (Smith et al., 2009). This regulation helped to keep lobbying more ethical and regulated. Also, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, required more transparency within lobbying. This includes requirements such as a “cooling off period,” which required legislators and staff to take one year off after leaving Congress before instantly becoming a lobbyist. The act also required that Senators register any travel for approval, and it severely increased the fines on abridges of noncompliance to these laws enacted by Congress (Smith et al., 2009).

These ethical and strong regulations have made lobbying a more honest and transparent function of the United States government. Lobbying plays a huge role in Congress because citizens and groups are able to mobilize and influence Congress. Also, lobbyists play a huge role in informing Congress with accurate and current information about legislation. Legislators also receive benefits from lobbyists by their ability to gain public support for an issue, or for their campaign amongst other things. Overall, lobbying and special interest groups represent a mutualistic relationship between the American people, and its government.

Works Cited
Americans for Prosperity Rally. CSPAN. Washington, D.C., 15 Nov. 2010. CSPAN Video Library. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. <>.
Cleaver, Emanuel. "From the Chairman | The Congressional Black Caucus." The Congressional Black Caucus | The Official Website of the Congressional Black Caucus. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. .
Legalization of Internet Gaming. CSPAN. Washington, D.C., 25 Oct. 2011. CSPAN Video Library. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. .
Newsmakers with Grover Norquist. CSPAN. Washington, D.C., 22 Nov. 2011. CSPAN Video Library. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. < >.
Smith, Steven S., Jason M. Roberts, and Wielen Ryan J. Vander. The American Congress. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.
"The Taxpayer Protection Pledge?" Americans for Tax Reform. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. .