The 2012 Steven Spielberg film, ‘Lincoln’, tells the story of President Abraham Lincoln trying to push through a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery while simultaneously bringing an end to the Civil War. A key part of the story revolves around a group of three lobbyists Lincoln’s administration employs to sway enough House members to vote in favor of the amendment.
Spielberg’s portrayal of the lobbyists gives viewers a glimpse into what lobbying is all about. Yet it might also give the wrong impression to people who do not understand the principle of lobbying. Political lobbying is highly regulated at both the state and federal levels. Lobbyists are allowed to do a lot of things, but there are many other things they are barred from doing by law.
Lobbyists Cannot Buy Votes
Despite popular opinion, lobbyists are not allowed by law to purchase votes. In other words, they cannot use cash or gifts to secure the votes of legislators. This is not to say it never happens; every law is broken from time to time. It is simply to state that purchasing votes is illegal.
Take Utah’s Statehouse Partners, for example. They may be very well connected in Salt Lake City. They may be intimately involved with government relations in Utah to the point that they know state lawmakers and their staff members on a first name basis. No matter how well connected or personally involved they are, state law bars them from offering any sort of remuneration in exchange for votes.
Note that lobbyists are allowed to contribute to political campaigns, but no more than any other citizen. The amounts they can legally contribute are small enough that they are but a drop in the bucket compared to what candidates need to fund their campaigns.
Lobbyists Cannot Write Legislation
Another misconception regarding lobbyists is their alleged authority to write legislation. They have no such authority. Statehouse Partners can no more right legislation in Utah than vote on it on the Senate floor. The same is true in Washington DC.
Lobbying groups, political action committees (PACs), community organizations, etc. can only make their voices heard on specific topics and proposed legislation. They cannot write legislation. The task of writing is left up to legislators and their staff members.
Lobbyists Cannot Bring Legislation to the Floor
Finally, lobbyists act as private citizens in a political sense. They are not elected officials with any authority inside statehouses or the U.S. Capitol. Therefore, they cannot bring legislation to the floor. Once again, the only thing lobbyists can do is try to influence decision-makers by advocating for a particular position.
So what is the point of all this? It is to say that legislators are ultimately responsible for the decisions they make. Statehouse Partners’ influence over government relations in Utah ends at the point where legislators have to make a decision. Lobbyists can lobby leaders in Washington, but those leaders are free to vote any way they want on a given issue.