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Lobbying Disclosure Act Guidance: What Do Lobbyists Have to Disclose?

May 13, 2024

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, which includes activities related to direct lobbying and government advocacy. And while lobbying is key to shaping public policy, transparency about how public affairs professionals interact with policymakers and elected officials has become especially important.

Lobbyists who advocate directly on behalf of a client or cause must understand and comply with various federal lobbying regulations, including the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), in order to legally and ethically influence policymakers.

The following guide outlines what you need to know about lobbying requirements, including activity limitations, disclosure reports, registration requirements, and the consequences of noncompliance.

What are the main functions of a lobbyist?

Lobbyists represent entities and interests – such as businesses, advocacy organizations, or private individuals – that may be affected by federal or state laws and policies. These public affairs professionals work to influence decision making by gaining access to elected officials and other policymakers and persuading them to support specific policy positions or take certain action.

There are two main ways that lobbyists work with elected officials, governmental agencies, and even courts:

  1. Informational: Some lobbyists may provide details about current laws or proposed bills and offer technical information on policy proposals.
  2. Legislative: Some lobbyists are actively involved in the introduction of legislation by helping to draft bills, preparing written testimony, or building a coalition of support.

To gain access to those they want to influence, lobbyists may attend official fundraisers or campaign events as well as informal meetings such as sporting events or dinners. In addition to building relationships and establishing networks, lobbyists must also track relevant news and political developments that inform contextual, thoughtful positions for government officials to consider.

What are lobbyists not allowed to do?

Federal laws limit a variety of lobbying activities, but some are not permitted altogether:

  • Lobbyists can’t pay an elected official to vote in a particular way.
  • Registered lobbyists can’t give gifts to members of Congress, government officers, or government employees. There are some exceptions for gifts not intended to influence official actions, like gifts that have limited or intrinsic value such as greeting cards, flowers, and other perishable items that are valued at less than $10.

Federal lobbying regulations also create a mandatory “cooldown” period for former government officials before they can register as lobbyists after holding public office.

What is required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act?

Federal lobbying activities are governed by the LDA and enforced by both chambers of Congress. The LDA was aimed at regulating the influence of outside interests on federal policymaking and enhancing government transparency by creating a detailed registration and disclosure structure for lobbyists.

In some cases, the LDA also places limits on the amount or percentage of money that organizations can spend on lobbying. The law also requires that federal lobbying activities must be paid for with nonfederal funds.

The LDA includes a provision that allows the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to annually audit the extent to which lobbyists have complied with registration and reporting requirements.

Federal lobbyist registration requirements

The LDA requires lobbyists to submit a lobbying registration form with both the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House of Representatives.

Registered lobbyists must track and regularly submit activity and expenditure reports, including:

  • Client disclosure lists
  • Lobbying contacts with federal agencies
  • Pieces of legislation they are working on
  • Expenditures for lobbyist activities

Individual lobbyists and lobbying firms are required to file expenditure reports semi-annually, even if they have no contributions to report, because they must certify compliance with gift and travel rules.

Lobbying disclosure reports

House and Senate lobbying disclosures give members of the public, the media, and government entities access to detailed information and reporting on lobbying activities.

Federal regulations under the Justice Against Corruption on K Street Act, which amended the LDA in January 2019 and is more commonly known as the JACK Act, require individual lobbyists to disclose whether they’ve had certain criminal convictions involving bribery, extortion, embezzlement, an illegal kickback, tax evasion, fraud, a conflict of interest, making a false statement, perjury, or money laundering.

Lobbyists are also required to disclose previous relevant employment, including but not limited to certain high-level agency positions or working as a paid congressional intern. Some lobbyists have expressed confusion about this requirement, according to a GAO report titled 2022 Lobbying Disclosure: Observations on Compliance with Requirements, which found that about 27% of the reports didn’t disclose relevant prior employment. Full compliance is necessary to avoid the risk of penalties, so it’s important to keep in mind that the LDA does require lobbyists to disclose previously held covered positions in the executive or legislative branches of government.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) also regulates lobbying during elections and campaign contributions from direct lobbyists. FEC regulations “require special reporting of certain contributions that are collected or ‘bundled’ by lobbyists/registrants, or by political action committees (PACs).” Specifically, “those that are established or controlled by lobbyists/registrants, on behalf of authorized committees of federal candidates, political party committees, and leadership PACs.” The reporting threshold for 2024 is $22,700.

What are the consequences of noncompliance with federal lobbying disclosure laws?

The secretary of the Senate and the House clerk, along with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (USAO), are responsible for ensuring compliance with the LDA.

All disclosure reports filed under the LDA are made available to the public and shared with other governmental entities such as the Department of Justice. If individual lobbyists or lobbying firms are knowingly noncompliant with the LDA, they can be subject to both criminal and civil penalty actions, with civil penalties not to exceed $200,000 and criminal imprisonment not to exceed five years.

To bring lobbyists into compliance, the USAO may issue enforcement letters, emails, and calls. Lobbyists may resolve noncompliance issues by filing their outstanding reports and, when applicable, paying a fine. If USAO can’t reach a noncompliant lobbyist, it works with the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House to determine whether further action is necessary, according to GAO.

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