Lobbying State Governments vs. the Federal Government

May 13, 2024

Each legislative cycle, lobbyists flock to Capitol Hill and state houses across the country to advocate for various bills and policies. While these lobbyists share a common goal to influence lawmakers, the way they operate and the challenges they may face depends a lot on whether they’re lobbying state governments or spearheading federal advocacy campaigns.

To help lobbyists better influence public policy, this article compares lobbying and public affairs strategies at the state and federal level in the U.S., including disclosure laws, effective tactics, and measuring impact.

State vs. federal lobbying differences

While the overarching goal of both state and federal lobbyists is to influence legislators, there are important variations between the two practices, including differing stakeholders, regulatory frameworks, and disclosure requirements.

Lobbying at the state level

Lobbying at the state level involves connecting with a variety of sources – including staff at state agencies, state executives, and state lawmakers – to advance specific localized interests or causes that state governments oversee. These state government responsibilities include matters such as health care, education, and transportation.

State governments across the U.S. each have their own unique legislative processes, including varying rules for who can introduce legislation and how committees operate. Due to these variances in legislative processes, it’s crucial for lobbyists – especially those who represent clients in different states – to understand how these systems and rules differ for their state-level advocacy efforts.

Each state also has distinct lobbying laws and compliance requirements, with varying definitions of what constitutes “lobbying” and who is a “lobbyist.” Such definitions often dictate each state’s specific laws concerning disclosures, gift restrictions and prohibitions, and registration requirements.

Lobbying at the federal level

Federal lobbyists seek to influence federal lawmakers and policymakers – including members of Congress, staff at federal agencies, and the U.S. president – to shape legislation and policies on national issues that the federal government oversees, such as commerce, immigration, and defense.

Because they only need to navigate the U.S. House and Senate, as opposed to juggling many different state-level legislative processes, federal lobbying can be more straightforward. However, federal lobbyists must understand and comply with strict regulations, including the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), to influence policymakers legally and ethically.

Among other obligations, the LDA requires lobbying firms to register clients whose lobbying activities exceed $3,000 per quarter. Organizations with in-house lobbyists are required to file a single registration if lobbying activities exceed $14,000 per quarter. To maintain compliance, registered lobbyists must file quarterly activity reports.

Are lobbying disclosure rules different at the state level?

Yes. While the LDA regulates federal lobbying activities and disclosure requirements, there is no single piece of legislation that regulates state lobbying disclosures. For example, while some states require all public affairs professionals recognized as lobbyists to file registration paperwork, other states require lobbyists to register only if they meet a certain time or compensation threshold. The information lobbyists must disclose – such as contributions, expenditures, and donor information – also varies from state to state.

While this public disclosure helps provide transparency and demonstrate lobbying’s financial power, a lot of meaningful lobbying work still happens off the public record. This can make it difficult to quantitatively measure the full impact of lobbying activities to influence federal or state policy outcomes.

State vs. federal lobbying tactics

Whether lobbying at the state or federal level, there are two general types of lobbying strategies: direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying.

Both strategies are most successful when the desired policy outcomes are framed in a way that resonates with the intended elected official – which may be different from the perspective of the campaign. Whether lobbying efforts are focused at the state or federal level, the issue should be localized. Explain how the proposal would benefit their constituents, impact the budget, and support their own legislative agenda and policy priorities.

Each state operates differently, so it’s important to research and understand their legislative processes and any local guidelines for engaging with government officials before proceeding with state-level advocacy efforts.

Direct lobbying

Direct lobbying is a more traditional strategy where lobbyists and public affairs professionals work to educate and persuade government officials, often on behalf of a specific interest such as a corporation or nonprofit. As its name suggests, direct lobbying involves communicating directly with targeted government officials to shape public policy.

Once campaign organizers identify key government officials and staff members, there are several direct lobbying tactics public affairs professionals can use to engage these decision-makers at both the federal and state level:

  • Schedule a formal one-on-one meeting with an elected official or their staff.
  • Have brief, informal discussions as they walk to committee meetings or floor votes in the capitol building.
  • Research issues the legislator is passionate about or involved in and attend related advocacy events and fundraisers to establish a professional connection.

Because developing and maintaining meaningful relationships with government officials can be laborious due to issues such as turnover, demanding schedules, and competing policy interests, organizations often work with lobbying firms that have existing relationships to support their direct lobbying efforts.

Grassroots lobbying

On the other hand, grassroots lobbying is the process of engaging and organizing the public to achieve policy goals. Instead of relying on lobbyists to meet directly with members of Congress, a grassroots campaign encourages constituents to put pressure on elected officials to enact change. These state or federal advocacy campaigns often ask supporters and volunteers to contact specific legislators on the local, state, or federal level, depending on the issue.

Trust Bloomberg Government to tackle complex state lobbying strategies

Lobbying state governments can sometimes be more complicated than lobbying to shape public policy at the federal level. Every year, millions of pieces of legislation are considered by thousands of legislators across all 50 states. State policy tracking can quickly become overwhelming for those state lobbyists who need to identify and act on only what matters most to their clients or stakeholders.

Download our State Policy Watchlist for expert analysis and insights into five key state policy areas that public affairs professionals need to know.

Bloomberg Government offers everything you need to successfully lobby across jurisdictions, including time-saving workflow tools, comprehensive news coverage, bill summaries and comparisons, and legislation tracking.

Request a demo to learn how Bloomberg Government can help your state lobbying efforts.