What are Lobbyists and What Do They Do?

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In the typical session of Congress, lawmakers put some 10,000 legislative proposals forward for consideration. That’s a tremendous number that members of the Senate and House of Representatives see in one form or another over a two-year period.

How do backers of a particular bill ensure that their proposal doesn’t get lost in the shuffle? There are many pieces to the legislative puzzle, but one of the most significant ones involves lobbying.

Businessman with long scroll of paper.

What is a lobbyist? What do lobbyists do on a day-to-day basis? What methods do they employ to further a cause? How do you become a lobbyist?

Lobbying is just one of several fields of study in the Master’s in Political Management online program at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM).

Graduates have gone on to pursue successful careers in lobbying, as the GSPM curriculum provides practical tools that students can apply on Capitol Hill or other arenas where proposals require advocates. There are many important aspects to lobbying, and it’s highly regulated and subject to many different rules. These are discussed in classes like Rules, Laws, and Strategy as well as Fundraising and Budgeting, part of the Applied Proficiencies cluster/specialization at GW.

Here, the explanations about lobbying will be a bit more general. The following is a basic breakdown of what lobbying entails for those considering it as a potential career option.

What is a lobbyist?

A lobbyist is a person who represents the interests of a particular group, business or organization. A lobbyist’s main job is to further his or her employer’s cause. Because promoting these interests often involves legislation, this means that lobbyists often deal directly with legislators or their personal staff. Lobbyists must be keenly familiar with the proposed bill or law to emphasize why the legislator should support it.

That’s an overarching description of what a lobbyist does, but there are also specific definitions in place from state to state for lobbying to be considered lawful. For example, as detailed by the National Conference of State Legislatures, in California, a lobbyist is any person who “receives $2,000 or more in economic consideration” every month of the year, aside from reimbursement for travel-related costs. Additionally, the principal duties of lobbyists in the Golden State are communicating with elected officials from California to influence policy. That means they can’t seek to persuade lawmakers to advance agendas if they represent other states.

States also have definitions regarding who cannot lobby or be a lobbyist. In Connecticut, public officials — appointed or elected — are prohibited from lobbying, as are members of the print and electronic media, and advisory board members. These exclusions are fairly uniform in all 50 states, not just Connecticut.

What do lobbyists do?

To advance policy and persuade lawmakers to champion a bill, lobbyists must be intimately familiar with the cause or issue that the bill concerns. This involves a tremendous amount of research that lobbyists can use to inform their understanding, which may be provided by their organization. However, they may also be required to obtain this information independently. Resourcefulness — knowing where and when to find information — is a hallmark of successful lobbying.

In addition to doing the background legwork, lobbyists are in constant communication with the people they represent and the lawmakers who can advance policy. They often serve as intermediaries to answer questions and make progress. Lobbyists also have to form relationships with lawmakers to build a level of rapport to more effectively do their jobs. Legislators are more likely to consider certain actions when they trust the person advocating for them.

Who hires lobbyists?

A wide array of industries and businesses are likely to deal with lobbyists or lobbying firms. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, insurance, electric utilities, real estate, health professionals, defense contractors, commercial banks and oil and gas are among the industries that spent money on lobbying in 2018. Pharmaceutical and health products paid the most, totaling in excess of $216 million. All told, $2.5 billion was spent on lobbying last year. While that’s the lowest amount since 2006, it’s more than double the total spent 30 years ago ($1.45 billion).

The methods lobbyists use to persuade legislators to support a bill often depend on the situation, but there are different types of lobbying, which organizations — such as charities and nonprofits – must be aware of for registration purposes. The two most common are direct and grassroots. As noted by the IRS, direct lobbying is when a lobbyist communicates directly with a legislator or legislative body that handles bills. Grassroots lobbying is a more roundabout way of persuading lawmakers, done by encouraging members of the public to support a cause. Some say that this is a more effective way of lobbying because legislators represent the viewpoints of their constituents. The distinctions between direct and grassroots lobbying are discussed in more detail in the GSPM curriculum.

Businesswoman with microphone speaking at convention.

What steps should I take to pursue a career in lobbying?

Becoming a lobbyist is a mixture of what you know and who you know. Although you don’t necessarily need a degree in political science, a Master’s in Political Management is ideal because it teaches practical tools that are important in the real world. An online Master’s in Political Management from GW is particularly advantageous because lobbying and government relations are a touchstone of the concepts taught. With the GW campus a short distance from Capitol Hill, the GSPM program can also help students establish connections.

For more information on the GSPM program and how it can set you up for a rewarding career in electoral or advocacy politics, apply today.

Recommended reading:
What is a career in public affairs?
What is a career as a fundraiser like?

Center for Responsive Politics
Bureau of Labor Statistics