DEFINITION: The term “lobbyist” refers to someone who attempts to influence politicians and government officials to pass legislation favorable to the private (“special”) interests whom the lobbyist represents.
ETYMOLOGY: The noun “lobbyist,” and the associated verb “to lobby,” stem from the word “lobby,” meaning “anteroom.”
The connection between the place and the function is that representatives of private interests frequently conversed with politicians in the antechamber to the main parliamentary chambers.
The word “lobby” derives from the Medieval Latin word lobium, meaning a “gallery.” Lobium is also related to the Old High German word louba, meaning “porch.”
The origin of the word “lobbyist” can be traced to the 1830s.
USAGE: Lobbyists may work directly for the companies they represent or they may work for independent firms that specialize in offering lobbying services to companies across a spectrum of economic sectors and issues.
In the American context, many independent lobbying groups are based in Washington, DC, as might be expected. Washington-based lobbying firms tend to cluster together on K Street, which is why the phrase “K Street” is sometimes used to refer to the lobbying industry collectively.
In modern liberal democracies, lobbyists are ubiquitous, but they are also controversial.
On the one hand, it might be argued that in a democracy government officials ought to be responsive to the concerns of their constituents.
On the other hand, the monetary and other blandishments and the none-too-subtle political pressure brought to bear on government officials by lobbyists sometimes cross the line into improper—or downright illegal—bribery and intimidation.
Another concern is that lobbyists magnify the already-disproportionate influence that very large and wealthy corporations exert on the political process.
Finally, the constant churn of individuals flowing between Capitol Hill and K Street is yet another unseemly aspect of the lobbying phenomenon.
All these concerns about the outsized influence of lobbyists on the workings of democracy have generated a host of regulations—mostly, to little avail.
The influence of lobbyists upon the American political system remains undiminished today.