Direct Lobbying and Government Advocacy

Direct lobbying is crucial to helping policy makers better understand the potential impact of a law on constituents and interest groups

Direct lobbying is about more than just making contact and influencing legislators. Successful lobbyists can help legislators in several ways, all requiring knowledge and expertise on an issue. Bloomberg Government helps you track bills, identify the legislative key players, and have a meaningful impact on the policies and issues you care about.

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Direct lobbying is when individuals or organizations engage directly with policy makers – typically government officials, legislators, or regulatory bodies – to influence the creation, implementation, or modification of public policies. Individuals, corporations, nonprofits, trade associations, and even government entities engage in lobbying and public affairs efforts.

For the second consecutive year, federal lobbying spending topped $4 billion in 2023. These direct lobbying initiatives play a major role in shaping important legislative activities such as debt ceiling negotiations, spending and appropriations bills, and entitlement spending, as well as recent tax, health care, technology, and financial services measures.

How direct lobbying influences policy making

Direct lobbying plays an essential role in the policy making process and can have a significant impact on public policy. Individual lobbyists work to develop valuable personal relationships with government officials and establish themselves as trusted advisors on specific policy areas.

Elected officials are often drafting and voting on many bills at once, spanning a wide array of policy areas and balancing competing interests. It can be unrealistic to expect lawmakers to be experts on every issue put in front of them. Lobbyists can help lawmakers make more informed decisions by providing valuable expertise on complex issues and insights into how certain policies may impact different constituencies. Lobbyists can provide valuable perspectives, data, background research, case studies, and testimonials to persuade policy makers to support their position or cause.

Lobbyists may also work closely with policy makers to draft legislation or propose amendments that align with their client’s interests. This can expedite the lawmaking process and ensure legislation includes specific favorable provisions.

To amplify their influence, lobbyists often form coalitions with special interest groups that share common goals. Some lobbyists and interest groups may also contribute financially to various political campaigns. Even with strict campaign finance regulations, these political contributions can put indirect pressure on elected officials to support the special interest’s position – or risk losing their support in the future.

Direct lobbying vs. grassroots lobbying

Both grassroots and direct lobbying can effectively influence public policy, even though the two approaches are quite different. Direct lobbying focuses on swaying elected officials, their staff, and other government officials who are key to writing legislation and implementing policy. To be considered direct lobbying, interactions must refer to a specific law or piece of legislation and reflect a point of view on the issue. More general communications discussing broad social, economic, or similar political issues; providing technical information, research, and analysis; or offering administrative assistance regarding interest group activities to a public official isn’t considered direct lobbying.

By contrast, grassroots lobbying is a more indirect attempt to influence legislative outcomes through public pressure from constituents. Generally, these campaigns focus on swaying public opinion and encouraging voters to contact their elected officials and ask them to take specific action on the issue.

Examples of direct lobbying activities

Direct lobbying is about more than just asking an elected official to vote a certain way on a bill or giving campaign contributions to candidates sympathetic to your cause. There are several ways that successful lobbyists can leverage their deep expertise and unique perspective during the complex legislative process and become a key strategic partner to lawmakers.

Meeting with key legislators and policymakers

To be effective, direct lobbyists need to identify the right people to meet with about a certain bill or issue. Using congressional directories – including biographies, bill sponsorship and voting records, and committee assignments – lobbyists can narrow their focus to those decision-makers who can have the most impact, such as the bill sponsors and committee members.

Building these long-term relationships with elected officials is made even more challenging by the short House terms and high turnover rates. For example, the start of the 118th Congress welcomed seven new senators and 74 new House members. Lobbyists can play a critical role in helping new members gain important institutional knowledge about the inner workings of Congress, as well as a greater breadth and depth of understanding of the issues of the day.

Elected officials are more likely to listen to a lobbyist’s perspective if they can make the issue relevant to the official’s home district and constituents. By demonstrating how a certain piece of legislation or policy position accommodates the member’s own legislative agenda or campaign promises, lobbyists can gain new, and sometimes unlikely, allies.

To do this effectively, lobbyists need to continually track activity and status changes on relevant bills. Visual data representations such as heatmaps can help track legislation across states, as well as help identify opportunities and threats to policy initiatives.

Providing educational briefings and other resources

Lobbyists organize briefings, seminars, and workshops to educate policy makers and their staff on specific issues and provide in-depth information. These sessions help lawmakers understand complex topics and make informed policy decisions.

To maximize effectiveness, these meetings should stay focused on one or two priority topics and maintain a collaborative tone. Send a one-page memo ahead of time that can be used as a discussion guide, and provide supporting position papers, policy reports, and research studies. Providing data-backed evidence strengthens a lobbyist’s credibility and helps sway policy makers in their favor.

Drafting legislative proposals and policy briefs

While influencing legislators is a vital part of the job, government affairs professionals also spend considerable time presenting their own policy briefs and legislative proposals. By detailing current and proposed policies and specific recommendations, policy briefs inform legislators of complex issues that may go beyond their areas of expertise and can be a helpful starting point for them when writing legislation. Lobbyists also work closely with policy makers to draft new bills, find cosponsors, and propose amendments to existing bills that align with their interests.

This policy making expertise is essential in a crowded arena where most bills falter. For example, while thousands of bills were introduced in the 117th Congress, fewer than 400 became law. This reality highlights the need for lobbyists to be able to anticipate how a bill may do once introduced and which bills are likely to become law so they can maximize their time, money, and resources.

Testifying at committee hearings

The bulk of legislative drafting work is done in committee. This is where elected officials first consider, debate, and rewrite legislation before deciding whether to put it before the full body for a vote. Lobbyists often work with congressional offices to plan committee hearings, including identifying witnesses and drafting questions for committee members to ask.

Through public testimony at committee hearings, government affairs professionals can provide information and context to help lawmakers make informed decisions about the language of a bill and determine how they’ll vote. Proposed legislation increasingly requires bipartisan support to pass, and lobbyists play an integral role in building alliances among political factions. Lobbyists who can articulate the most persuasive argument to the widest constituency base make the most persuasive witnesses at hearings and committee sessions.

Direct lobbying regulations and disclosure requirements

Direct lobbying activities are subject to varying restrictions and requirements depending on the jurisdiction, industry, and the type of government official or agency involved. For instance, the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA) mandates registration and reporting requirements for lobbying firms and other organizations that directly lobby the federal government.

Before engaging directly with a policy maker, it’s important to know whether your outreach strategy is considered direct lobbying under applicable law and understand the exemptions and limits placed on those activities, including registration requirements, reporting obligations, or restrictions on gifts or contributions.

Registration requirements for direct lobbyists

The LDA requires lobbying firms that are hired on behalf of a client to file a separate registration for each client if their total income from lobbying activities on behalf of that client exceeds $3,000 in a quarter.

Organizations that employ their own in-house lobbyist must register with the secretary of the Senate and the House clerk within 45 days if they meet each of the following criteria:

  1. An employee intends to make more than one lobbying contact on behalf of the organization.
  2. An employee devotes more than 20% of their time in a three-month period to direct lobbying efforts.
  3. The organization will spend more than $14,000 on direct lobbying activities in a quarter.

Reporting obligations for lobbying expenditures

Registered organizations are required to track and report lobbying expenditures, defined as any amount paid or incurred by the organization to influence legislation. Records should detail both grassroots and direct lobbying expenditures in categories such as communication, staff salaries, and any payments made to others for lobbying activities. These expenditures are then detailed on Schedule C of Form 990.

Under the LDA, registered organizations must file quarterly reports with Congress that provide a good-faith estimate, rounded to the nearest $10,000, of how much they spent on lobbying efforts and materials. Registered lobbying firms working on behalf of clients must also report all lobbying-related income.

Additionally, 501(c)(3) public charities are required to report lobbying expenditures to the IRS. To maintain their tax-exempt status, these organizations must keep lobbying activities and spending below a certain threshold. The IRS provides two options for calculating the lobbying limit:

  • Insubstantial part test
  • 501(h) expenditure test

Organizations often elect to use the expenditure test due to its comparatively clearer guidelines.

Expenditure test

If an organization takes the 501(h) election, the allowable lobbying expenditure is calculated as a percentage of the amount the organization spends on total “exempt purpose expenditures.” The calculation uses a sliding scale based on the organization’s size. For example, if the amount of exempt purpose expenditures is more than $17 million, as is the case with the largest organizations, the lobbying nontaxable amount is capped at $1 million. Beyond this cap, an organization can’t spend more than 25% of its permitted lobbying total on grassroots lobbying.

Section 15 of the LDA allows the use of the 501(h) expenditure test formula to assess time and expenditure thresholds.

Contribution and gift restrictions

Both the U.S. House and Senate have strict rules that cap the value of gifts that lobbyists can give government officials. Senate Rule 35 and Houe Rule 25 state that even if a gift is of nominal value – less than $10 – it can’t be any of the following:

  • Cash or its equivalent, like a gift card
  • Food or drink in a one-on-one meeting
  • A frequent occurrence

Federal and state campaign finance laws, like the Federal Election Campaign Act, limit the amount of money that an individual or organization can contribute to a single political campaign or political action committee. Due to the recent significant rise in inflation, the Federal Election Commission increased federal contribution limits for the 2024 election cycle. Several states have similarly increased their contribution limits for state elections.

Direct lobbying as a part of the political process

Lobbying public officials on behalf of political interests is an integral part of the democratic process. It keeps policy makers informed about complex issues they might not otherwise have insight into, provides insight into how certain policies affect real people, and encourages policy making based on evidence.

But because direct lobbying requires money, it tends to favor wealthy and influential interest groups or companies with resources, giving them greater access to powerful decision-makers. This can lead to unequal representation of interests and further marginalize less affluent groups.

Critics have also pointed out the potential for corruption, and how even the perception of corruption can erode public trust in the political system. Although there are rules about gift giving and receiving, some lobbyists may try to exchange campaign contributions, gifts, or other benefits for better access to government officials. It doesn’t help that direct lobbying isn’t fully transparent, and many lobbying activities aren’t disclosed to the public.

There’s been a growing movement to reform campaign finance laws to push for more transparency and disclosure. Some states have enacted sunshine laws to shed more light on politics and outside influences, requiring organizations to disclose political spending to causes and candidates. For example, the California Political Reform Act requires an organization to register and report lobbying activities to the state if it exceeds certain monetary thresholds or if an employee spends significant time communicating with state officials.

Even though lobbying is perceived as representing specific interests or industries, it can also be a means of advocating for policies that benefit the broader public. And while lobbyists do represent the interests of industries and companies with deeper pockets, they also represent underrepresented or marginalized groups. Direct lobbying gives nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, and individuals a way to push for policies that address important issues, like civil rights, health-care reform, and environmental protection.

In an increasingly polarized legislative environment with small vote margins and diverse constituents, lobbyists increasingly espouse nuanced, bipartisan approaches on behalf of their organizations to maximize the chance of securing political wins. Effective lobbying for the public interest requires vigilance, ethical conduct, and continuous efforts to ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard and considered in the political process.

Have a bigger policy impact with Bloomberg Government

In such a high-stakes lobbying and public affairs environment that can feel saturated with competing interests, direct lobbying plays an increasingly important role in securing desired policy outcomes. Bloomberg Government has the breaking news, policy tracking, and in-depth expert analysis that public affairs professionals count on to create effective direct lobbying strategies for their clients and stakeholders.

Download our latest Top-Performing Lobbying Firms report for an inside look at the key lobbying firms driving industry growth.

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