How does corporate lobbying work? What are the current regulations and restrictions? What are some recent examples where a large corporation swayed the results of a bill, tax, or law being passed? How does corporate lobbying negatively effect the economy and politics of the United States?
Corporate lobbying is almost as old as the democratic system of governance established by the Founding Fathers when drafting the Constitution of the United States. Laws regulating lobbying activities by corporations and individuals are a product of abuses that occurred over the years, and these regulations and laws continue to be modified as new loopholes or changing public perceptions of government evolve. When examining corporate lobbying, however, it is always important to keep in mind that, abuses and excesses aside, the right of the citizenry of the United States to petition its government to seek redress of grievances is an integral part of the First Amendment to the Constitution. There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying, but regulations intended to prevent abuses are certainly warranted. Most major and minor corporations have on their staffs "government relations" specialists whose responsibilities include tracking legislation at both the state and federal levels and, when necessary for the protection of that corporation's interests, meeting with elected representatives and/or their aides in order to voice that corporation's concerns. These meetings are a regular component of every legislative office's day-to-day operations. How far an individual member of Congress goes in advancing the interest of that corporation, however, is where the illegal or, at a minimum, unethical actions can come into question. I was lobbied hundreds of times during my years working in the United States Congress, and there are certainly lobbyists who are willing to cross ethical boundaries to suit their needs, but most recognize legal and ethical limits and act quite professionally. Depending upon the importance of a corporation to a congressman's district or to a senator's state, the corporate lobbying may extend no further than the corporation's government relations manager meeting in-person with the congressman's staffer -- presumably the staffer whose responsibilities fall within the realm of the corporation's interests. For example, I spent 12 years working on military issues for members of the U.S. House and Senate Committees on Armed Services. In that capacity, I was regularly approached by representatives from many defense contractors, as well as with congressional relations officials from the Departments of Defense, State and the Treasury. While many companies have government relations specialists on their staff, they also hire lobbying firms that exist in Washington, D.C. for the sole purpose of lobbying Congress on behalf of their clients' interests. Such firms are very powerful, and often employ retired members of Congress and former senior-level congressional staffers so as to exploit such individuals' access to people in positions of power on Capitol Hill as well as in the federal agencies in question (e.g., the aforementioned federal agencies, such as Defense, State, etc.). The main federal statutes (and it is important to remember that this information is specific to the federal government, as each state maintains its own laws on lobbying) regulating corporate lobbying fall within the Lobbying Disclosure Act (Title 2 United States Code Section 1601). Originally passed in 1995, the LDA has been amended a number of times, most prominently in 2007 with passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA), which sought to address loopholes in the earlier legislation, and to adjust monetary thresholds that trigger reporting requirements to take into account normal inflationary trends. Regulations pertaining to lobbying are invariably intended to enhance transparency in the relationships between elected officials, their staffs, and the organizations, including corporations, that lobby them. By making more visible to the public these interactions, politicians are less likely to run afoul of the law. Corporate lobbying negatively affects the economy and politics of the United States when elected officials succeed, at the behest of corporations seeking assistance, at passing legislation that comes at the expense of the fiduciary interests of the public at large. In other words, legislation intended to help a particular corporation or industrial sector gain an advantage in some way may undermine the competitive processes that otherwise ensure the public's interests are protected. When the Boeing Corporation lobbied Congress for the right to compel the U.S. Air Force to purchase Boeing-made refueling aircraft, the public's interest was not well-served, as Boeing's European competitor was left at a disadvantage despite its lower bid price for the aircraft it hoped to sell to the Air Force. Boeing (and the many subcontractors that would contribute to the aircraft's construction) was seeking to protect its employees and stockholders from foreign competition, but that protectionist practice came at the expense of the general public's financial well-being, as the public was now compelled to spend more money for the domestically-produced aircraft. (Note: This is a simplified description of a real-life example, as the European company -- Airbus -- was suspected of some less-than-ethical activities itself. Air Force and Boeing officials, however, went to prison for their illegal activities directly tied to corporate lobbying that had crossed legal boundaries.)