Though it often gets a bad rap, lobbying is an essential part of the democratic process.
With the presidential transition nearing an end and a slate of candidates running in spring elections across central Illinois, the inner workings of government are in the spotlight. One quite ordinary—yet often controversial—issue that attracts public attention is the act of lobbying: interacting with government officials as a means to sway executive or legislative actions in favor of a particular issue, organization or cause.
There’s no doubt it has a bad reputation. Each year, Gallup polls find lobbyists at the bottom of the barrel for perceived ethical behavior: in 2015, just seven percent of Americans said lobbyists have “high or very high” honesty and ethical standards. However, those involved with the practice suggest it is generally innocuous, often helpful and sometimes even necessary—a small piece of a larger picture in the world of social, economic and political advocacy.
Advocacy vs. Lobbying
“If you have a Venn diagram, advocacy would be the big circle and lobbying would be a small circle inside,” explains Jim Runyon, Executive Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, Governmental Affairs & Grants at Easterseals Central Illinois and chair of Illinois Partners for Human Service, which advocates for human service agencies statewide. As such, lobbying is considered a subset of advocacy—but the two are not the same. The key distinction: advocates speak on behalf of issues at large, while lobbyists campaign for matters relating to specific legislation or executive actions.
“Probably 95 percent of what I do is advocacy work,” Runyon says. “I’m out there building relationships, telling the Easterseals story… talking about the needs of families with autism and cerebral palsy… bringing forward their concerns, their needs. All of that fits neatly under advocacy.”
When it comes to lobbying, there are generally two approaches: direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying, of course, refers to direct contact with legislators to discuss bills under consideration, with the aim of influencing their vote. Grassroots lobbying involves attempts to influence legislation by affecting public opinion and encouraging the general public to take action, such as contacting legislators and government officials regarding the issue at hand.
Both approaches involve specific legislation, and there are millions of lobbyists working on behalf of organizations that need particular bills to pass for funding, services support or other reasons. But lobbying is only part of the advocacy mission, which aims to keep particular issues—and possible solutions—in the spotlight. “People tend to just talk about it all as lobbying,” Runyon adds. “But really, lobbying is this tiny, very defined piece… The story is really about advocacy.”
Lobbying and the Law
While lobbying is highly regulated, advocacy is not—a critical difference, as some lobbying activities could jeopardize an organization’s federal funding or nonprofit status. While nonprofits, for example, can engage in some lobbying, there are strict rules regarding the percentage of their budgets that can be directed toward such activities, as well as prohibitions on the use of federal funds for the practice.
Lobbyists must register at both the federal and state levels and report their related expenditures. For the federal government, reporting occurs on an annual basis; this includes gas and mileage, food (including the purchase of meals for public officials) and any other costs that result from lobbying work. In addition, each state has its own laws in place, and Illinois has some of the strictest regulations in the country. Registered lobbyists must report their expenditures to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office every two weeks—regardless of the amount spent—or risk a fine for each missed reporting period. These rules, which apply to both direct and grassroots lobbying, require care and diligence to ensure full compliance with the law.
“The minute I talk about specific legislation and I’ve asked a state legislator to vote in a particular way, now I am lobbying [instead of advocating],” Runyon adds. “The difference between advocacy and lobbying is really key… because if you cross into lobbying in the State of Illinois, there are all kinds of requirements that you have to complete to be inside the law.”
Filling in the Gaps
The role of the lobbyist as an influencer isn’t viewed well by the general public, in part due to highly visible cases of past public corruption, such as the Jack Abramoff casino lobbying scandal of the mid-2000s. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 71 percent of respondents believed lobbyists hold too much power. In fact, lobbyists topped the list for holding “too much power,” with major corporations and financial institutions tying for second place at 67 percent.
A recent situation involving former Kansas Senator Bob Dole serves to illustrate this power. Now a lobbyist for a DC law firm, Dole arranged for a controversial phone call between President-elect Donald Trump and the president of Taiwan—upending decades of American foreign policy and risking the ire of China. But the persuasive power of lobbyists isn’t inherently corrupt, and in most cases, they constitute an essential link between governmental action and local organizations. “Every organization under the sun has a lobbying representative,” notes Brad McMillan, executive director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University. “Officials can’t be experts, so lobbyists fill in the gaps.”
When lobbyists meet with legislators, they not only share the top concerns and issues of their organizations, they also learn what is going on at the Capitol—and all the factors legislators must consider before casting their votes. Keeping that two-way line of communication open allows organizations to understand the complexities of pending legislation, and provides a foundation on which to educate the public about current stances and next steps. “My role is really about education,” Runyon explains. “It’s educating those in power… trying to give greater awareness of the people we serve and the impacts that the things [legislators] do have on them—and then carrying that information back [home].”
Meanwhile, as local elections are decided and legislation with the potential for significant social impact is debated and passed (or not passed), Runyon says his associates at Easterseals, Illinois Partners for Human Service and similar organizations across the country are prepared to lobby when necessary, and advocate always—building their reputations as trustworthy resources to public officials and other key decision makers. “When I walk out of [a legislator’s] office, I want them to know that I’m a resource,” he explains. “So if they have a need at some point, they should pick up the phone and call me.” iBi