A lobbyist’s role in American democracy

Written by Matthew Anderson

April 13, 2018

The following remarks were presented in March 2018 by Sutherland’s Matthew Anderson during Rep. Rob Bishop’s annual education conference at the Utah State Capitol. Anderson joined Rep. John Curtis, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management Brian Steed, and House Natural Resources Committee Staff Director Cody Stewart to speak with high school students from around northern Utah.

Students spent the day learning about local, state and federal government; the role of federal agencies; and the importance of federalism in American democracy. Anderson’s comments, which focused on the role lobbyists play in American democracy, can be summed up as follows:

  1. Lobbyists work for interest groups

An interest group is an organized group of individuals that seeks to influence public policy on the basis of a particular common interest or concern. Interest groups have two primary functions: to sway public opinion and to influence public policy. In order to influence policy, many interest groups hire lobbyists to interact with and sway legislators and government agencies.  They can do this in a variety of ways, including providing research, presenting arguments in favor or against proposed legislation and helping to write bills.

  1. Lobbying has a long and storied history in American politics

You will be hard-pressed to find a piece of legislation that a has been untouched by lobbying efforts. In fact, prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison wrote about the role of interest groups and the need to have a large number of them to check one another. Since that time, lobbying has played a pronounced role in our political process.

  1. Lobbyists help write legislation

This is especially true in the context of state legislatures. Let’s take Utah’s State Legislature for example: Our legislative session is only 45 days long and is made up of part-time legislators who don’t have professional staff. As such, they are in serious need of information and assistance from interest groups and lobbyists who have the expertise and resources to help. Lobbyists provide data, language and support as bills make their way through the legislative process.

  1. Lobbyists interact with state and federal agencies

While state and federal agencies don’t make policy, they do implement it. Often times, Congress and state legislatures pass vague laws and give a lot of discretion to government agencies on how to carry them out. Furthermore, information and research can be costly. Lobbyists provide government agencies with information and suggestions on how to implement laws.

  1. Individual citizens interact with their elected officials without registering as lobbyists

Americans can and should lobby their elected officials and government agencies. However, this does not make them official “lobbyists” per se.  Individual citizens can call, write and visit their elected officials and express how proposed legislation will affect them and their community. But when someone lobbies on behalf of an organization or interest group, they must register as an official lobbyist. The difference is in whom the individual represents. Here in Utah, lobbyists must pay a fee, take an exam demonstrating their understanding of lobbying regulations, and wear a badge that designates them as lobbyists whenever engaging in that activity.

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