A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Right to Lobby


Q: Are lobbyists justified in a democracy?

A: The Constitution guarantees the right to petition government.

FULL QUESTION

In a one person = one vote = one voice, structured democracy such as ours, how does one justify the political lobbyists?

Aren’t they just mucking up the system?

FULL ANSWER

The Constitution guarantees all of us the right to lobby, along with the right to practice religion freely, to express our opinions in public and to rally for a cause. It’s all in the First Amendment:

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That right to “petition the government for redress of grievances” applies to all of us, rich or poor, business owners or labor unions. The Supreme Court said in a 1967 case:

U.S. Supreme Court (1967): [The] rights to assemble peaceably and to petition for a redress of grievances are among the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights. These rights, moreover, are intimately connected, both in origin and in purpose, with the other First Amendment rights of free speech and free press.

In that case, the Illinois State Bar Association had sued the United Mine Workers to prevent the union from using its own lawyer to represent members in seeking workers compensation, and the high court said the Constitution gave the union the right to do so. The same principle would apply to any big corporation lobbying Congress for a tax break or the Sierra Club lobbying for tighter regulation of polluters.

Whether lobbyists are “mucking up the system” is a matter of opinion. Such complaints usually come from those who have been out-lobbied by the other side, whether they are liberals complaining about business lobbyists or conservatives complaining about lobbyists for trial lawyers or labor unions. It’s certainly true that some lobbyists have used questionable or even illegal methods to gain the ear of a lawmaker, as the recent case of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff illustrates. There are laws against bribery and corruption, and it can be debated whether those go far enough or are enforced properly. We offer no opinion on those matters. But it is a fact that the founders of this nation saw lobbying itself as something essential to the functioning of the new government, just like free speech and a free press.

Sources

U.S. Constitution, First Amendment.

UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA, DISTRICT 12 v. ILLINOIS STATE BAR ASSOCIATION ET AL., 389 U.S. 217 (1967)