Lobbying is a strategic process through which groups and organizations carry out activities intended to influence policymakers and the formation of laws and regulations. In the nineteenth century, the term described how agents of interest groups gathered in the lobbies and hallways of the US Capitol in Washington and US state capitols to advocate with legislators during meeting breaks. This kind of face-to-face advocacy between representatives of interest groups and policymakers constituted the act of lobbying. Today, lobbying is often seen to include many other communication strategies and tactics, ranging from presentations of research reports and committee testimony, to media relations activities, issue advertisements, grassroots campaigns, and even litigation.
Groups that engage in lobbying represent diverse types of organizations, ideologies, and levels of political resources. They include businesses, labor unions, nongovernmental organizations, social movements, single interest groups, trade groups, think tanks, professional associations, religious groups, foreign governments, and specialized institutional agencies like health-care and education. Such political actors are collectively referred to here as interest groups, though they are often categorized somewhat differently in the literature as firms and economic organizations, membership groups, peak associations, and so forth. However, they are all interest groups in that they conduct strategic activities that aim to influence policymakers and thereby advance their own agendas and goals.
Lobbying occurs in local, state, regional, national, supranational, and international political decision-making arenas and forums, and communication activities may be carried out by registered lobbyists, interest group officials and representatives, public affairs personnel, coalition representatives, trade and association personnel, and highly specialized agencies. Professional lobbyists are viewed with skepticism in some countries, especially the US, given the enormous amounts of money that flow into lobbying activities and periodic ethical scandals involving lobbyists.
Theoretical Frameworks And Concepts
Lobbying is most often practiced and studied in democratic-type nations and political forums in western Europe and North America, where professional lobbying has a long tradition. In democracies, interest groups are seen to play an important role in the political process, and political theory developed around the concept of interest groups in the US in the mid-twentieth century (Truman 1951). The theory suggested that governmental decisions and policies grow out of the public’s identification and discussion of social issues and problems. The role of government is to listen to these multiple voices, arbitrate conflicts, encourage compromise, and act in the best interests of “the people.” The voices of competing interest groups, expressed through lobbying activities, help shape policy decisions.
However, Mancur Olson’s (1965) theory of collective action highlighted the difficulties groups faced in organizing members and engaging in concerted action, which prevented some groups from having an equal voice in policy debates. Statist and elitist perspectives also challenge pluralistic conceptions of interest groups and policymaking. Statist theories (Skocpol 1988, 1992) in the 1970s and 1980s posited that government policymakers, far from responding to pressure group voices and lobbying activities, are powerful actors in their own right and exert considerable influence on policy decisions and implementation. In the elitist view (Mills 1956), certain groups and organizations (e.g., corporations and the wealthy) exert a disproportionate influence on policymakers because they possess and use more political and economic resources, and are linked with policymakers through common social circles, education, group memberships, and ideology. Comprehensive studies have found consistently that economic producers are heavily over-represented in Washington-based lobbying associations and groups (Herring 1929/1967; Schattschneider 1960; Schlozman & Tierney 1986).
Researchers have also conceptualized policymaking as a communicative process in which groups select and use lobbying tactics and approaches to compete for political action and attention. Social movement theorists (Benford & Snow 2000) and political communication researchers (Reese et al. 2001) have developed and used framing theory to help explain how collective action groups construct and frame their messages and advocacy efforts, how such frames change over time, and how they may be used to attract or mobilize group members. Berger et al. (2002) contended that three interrelated communication processes bear heavily on policy decisions: (1) the framing of social problems, (2) the selection or identification of certain social issues to be addressed by policymakers (agenda setting), and (3) the use of issue management approaches through which organizations engage in the public policy formation process. Collective action groups monitor their environments, identify issues for political action, set goals, and select and carry out various lobbying strategies and tactics.
Research Directions And Findings
Lobbying and the dynamics of political action communications overlap a number of disciplines, including political science, political communication, issue management and public affairs, economics, sociology, and organizational behavior. Political science researchers have long been interested in influence in the political process and have conducted many studies to ascertain whether lobbying and political action committee (PAC) contributions in the US influence policymaking. These variables are frequently used in studies because campaign finance reform laws in the 1970s in the US provided new databases of business lobbying and PAC expenditures. The findings in such studies are inconsistent: reviews of 23 lobbying and 68 PAC studies concluded that such influence attempts appeared to sometimes strongly affect policymaking, sometimes marginally, and sometimes not at all (Baumgartner & Leech 1998; Smith 1995).
Some inconsistencies are due to the use of different methodologies and statistical tests, as well as a lack of direct measures of lobbying and influence in the studies. In addition, many other variables come into play in the policymaking process, and these often go unexplored and uncontrolled in studies. Such variables include the public salience of issues, public opinion about issues, the type of issue up for discussion, the scope of issue conflict, the stage of issue development, the presence of other lobbying tactics, the nature and extent of opposition from contending interest groups, election factors, party affiliation, and various contextual, institutional, and cultural factors.
Communication, sociological, and political communication researchers have studied the particular lobbying strategies and tactics that interest groups use. These studies have yielded a greater consistency of findings, suggesting that most interest groups and organizations use a variety of similar tactics to attempt to influence policymakers. Berry (1977) developed a typology of four lobbying strategies, which are groups of tactics selected for use in specific political contexts. Information strategies employ such tactics as public relations media campaigns, congressional testimony, and presentation of data and research results formally or informally to policymakers. Confrontation strategies include the tactics of demonstrations, protests, other staged events, and aggressive media activities. Constituency strategies include grassroots campaigns and political contributions, while legal strategies use litigation tactics and other forms of administrative actions. The selection of strategies appears to be based on the characteristics of the interest group, the amount and type of its resources, the scope of the issue conflict, and the political and institutional contexts of decision-making arenas.
According to the findings of six major surveys, face-to-face discussions with policymakers and presentations of research and information at committee meetings were the two most common lobbying tactics used by interest groups in Washington, DC and US state capitals (Baumgartner & Leech 1998). Other frequently used tactics included informal contacts with officials, coalitions, public relations and advertising initiatives, drafting or advising on regulations or legislation, constituent or grassroots campaigns, and legal actions. Protests, demonstrations, and election support activities, i.e., campaign contributions and candidate endorsements, were used least often.
Lobbying In Europe
Practiced in some European nations for many years, lobbying activities, and research into them, accelerated sharply in the 1980s and 1990s due to the Single European Act and the emergence of Europeanization and corresponding EU policymaking. As the number of lobbying offices and lobbyists multiplied in Brussels, research focused on case studies of particular groups and issues, lobbying styles and tactics, policy networks, and the growing Europeanization of interest groups, trade associations, and nongovernmental organizations. More recent research has taken an institutional approach, examining how lobbying activities and practices are shaped by the political contexts and institutional frameworks in which they take place. These include the EU Commission and Parliament, political ministries, legislative committees in nation-states, civil services, party systems, supranational agencies, and rules of the game that affect law-making processes, protocols, and timetables (McGrath 2005). Such research focuses on relationships between institutional constraints and opportunities and the interest groups that operate within the institutions, the tactics and strategies they employ, and the extent to which they are successful.
European researchers are also interested in similarities and differences between the US and the EU regarding lobbying tactics, practices, and policy-formation processes. Woll (2006) found that lobbying on both sides of the Atlantic had increased sharply in the past several decades and that lobbyists everywhere seek to gain access to policymakers, influence policy decisions, and advance the goals of their groups. In addition, coalition approaches continue to increase, and both European and American lobbyists most often use research presentations and formal and informal consultation to attempt influence. However, the style, characteristics, and instruments of lobbying differ to some extent. Lobbying in the US is more aggressive and confrontational, whereas in Europe the approach is lower-key and more consensus-oriented. US lobbying is also more competitive and fragmented and seems less focused on developing long-term relationships with policymakers. US lobbyists also use legal and financial instruments, which are limited tactical options in Europe, and employ public relations and advertising approaches to a far greater extent.
Past research has provided a great deal of descriptive data about lobbying through interest group case studies, framing analyses, domain studies, examinations of group lobbying tactics and strategies, and quantitative studies of lobbying and campaign contributions. However, theory development has lagged, and future research is likely to be directed toward studies that better explain how, why, and when interest groups select particular lobbying strategies and tactics, and in what contexts and under what conditions they successfully influence policymakers. The most promising research approaches in Europe and the US appear to be international comparative studies and institutional and cultural studies that shed light on the many complex contextual variables that shape lobbying practices, influence strategic and tactical choices, and affect policy decisions.
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- Woll, C. (2006). Lobbying in the European Union: From sui generis to a comparative perspective. Journal of European Public Policy, 13, 456 – 469.