Return | Legislation 101 | Committees | Voteopolis Integration | Lobbyists | Federal vs States | Constitutional Amendments

Surmising Special Interests: The Role Of K Street In American Government

Laws, like sausages, are made in complex ways, many of which the public does not fully understand. Lobbyists and special interest groups play a crucial but often obscure role in the legislative process. Traditionally located on K Street in Washington, DC, lobbyists have enormous influence at all levels of government, yet few Americans understand their power.

Instruments Of Influence

Although lobbyists and special interest groups do not have direct legislative power, they wield great influence over those who do. They obtain this influence through:

  • Campaign Contributions- Special interest groups accrue enormous sums of money from the individuals and corporations they represent, which they then donate to candidates in advance of elections. Because candidates need money to fund ads and campaign events, they stand a much better chance of winning if they keep lobbyists happy.
  • Influence Through Information- Elected officials must write and debate legislation on complex issues, many of which they could never understand in full. Lobbyists fill in this information gap, educating officials on all they need to know about potential legislation or even writing bills for members of Congress to submit. This is one of the subtlest and most effective forms of political influence. By controlling what information elected officials have, lobbyists and interest groups can ensure that they only consider legislation that is beneficial to their interests.
  • Furnishing Favors- Although lobbyists cannot directly give money to elected officials in exchange for their votes, they can treat them to dinner, sports games, performances, and other activities. To keep these benefits coming, officials must vote for legislation that is favorable to the lobbyists’ interest groups. As long as lobbyists do not directly demand that officials vote a certain way, this does not qualify as bribery.
  • Public Presentations- In addition to influencing elected officials directly, special interest groups can also drum up public support for their favored policies. They can do this by airing ads arguing for or against particular bills or by funding think tanks and scholars that produce studies they agree with.

Estimating the total amount of money spent on lobbying is difficult, as many de facto lobbyists are able to avoid registering their activities. A 2012 study estimated that special interests spent a total of $6.7 billion lobbying the government that year. By comparison, during the 2012 election cycle, one of the most expensive in US history, candidates spent a total of $6.2 billion.

Crucial Contributors

Because legislation impacts all citizens, virtually every identifiable group in the United States lobbies the government for its interests. The most important interest groups include:

  • Financial Institutions- During the 2016 election cycle, banks, insurance companies, and real estate firms donated $133.7 million to the Republican Party and $124.4 million to the Democrats. This includes only direct campaign contributions; spending that includes indirect lobbying activities is likely far higher.
  • Electronics & Communications- In direct campaign contributions during the last election cycle, electronics and communications companies contributed $61.5 million to the Democratic Party and $25.8 million to the GOP.
  • Resources & Energy- Firms that deal in energy and natural resources spent $38.7 million on the Republican Party and $7.1 million on the Democratic Party in 2016.
  • Labor Unions- Labor groups spent $7.4 million on the Democratic Party and $689,500 on the GOP in 2016. Although they do not have as much money as other contributors, labor unions have outsized influence due to their ability to organize voters in swing states.
  • Ideological Groups- Defined as organizations that argue in favor of particular issues or worldviews, these groups spent $57.2 million on the Democrats and $53.5 million on the GOP. Discussing ideological groups as a single category is problematic, however, given that many of these organizations lobbying in favor of completely different, and often contradictory, legislation.
  • Nations- US policy reverberates throughout the world, so nations often try to influence it. Foreign governments and institutions often lobby in favor of policies that increase their countries’ power and visibility. The Japanese embassy, for example, has lobbied state governments to refer to the sea between Japan and Korea as the “Sea of Japan” rather than the “East Sea.” In addition to foreign countries, US territories and Native American nations also try to influence the Federal government.

Because different interest groups and lobbyists often counteract each other, simply making campaign contributions and providing favors does not guarantee success. It is thus difficult to assess the total impact of individual interest groups or lobbying overall on American governance. In general, however, the more money or organizing power an organization has, the greater its influence.

Little Guy Lobbying

Although lobbyists are often decried for defending powerful institutions at the expense of ordinary voters, their true role is more complicated. Some lobbyists represent rich and powerful clients, but others provide a voice to those whom American government might otherwise neglect. US territories like Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands, for example, cannot participate in Federal elections despite the fact that their residents are American citizens. These countries use lobbyists to advocate for their interests before Congress, ensuring that Federal legislation doesn't ignore their needs or negatively impact them.

Whatever the overall effect of lobbyists and interest groups on American governance, our judicial system has long regarded their activities as valid free speech protected by the First Amendment. Lobbying, then, is here to stay. By understanding the lobbying process and paying attention to interest groups, we can keep an eye on these activities, ensuring that they complement rather than undermine the values of our Republic.


Return | Legislation 101 | Committees | Voteopolis Integration | Lobbyists | Federal vs States | Constitutional Amendments