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Eye Into the World of Lobbyists, Think Tanks

Lobbyists gather in the Capitol Rotunda in Lincoln, Nebraska, as state lawmakers debate on the floor of the Legislature in February 2009
Lobbyists gather in the Capitol Rotunda in Lincoln, Nebraska, as state lawmakers debate on the floor of the Legislature in February 2009

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BARBARA KLEIN: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember. Today we talk about lobbying and think tanks -- two important parts of making policy in the United States.

BARBARA KLEIN: Many groups are involved in public policy decisions. Representatives of corporations and interest groups interact with Congress and the Executive Branch to influence those decisions. This activity is called lobbying.

Some people say lobbying supports special interests at the expense of the public interest. But lobbying is an activity protected by the United States Constitution. And it has become an important part of how laws are made and carried out.

STEVE EMBER: Laws are made in the United States in what is supposed to be a very public process. Bills are proposed in Congress, debated and voted on. Those that pass are sent to the president with the goal of being signed into law.

Then the Executive Branch of the government carries out those laws, and the rules based on them, through its many departments and agencies.

Individuals and businesses that are affected by these laws and rules want to influence their creation and their enforcement. This effort to influence is called lobbying.

BARBARA KLEIN:A lobby is a public area near the entrance of a building. It is also a public room next to the assembly room of a legislative body.

The verb "to lobby" first appeared in print in the United States in the eighteen thirties, according to a website about Washington. The term is believed to have started in the British Parliament. It meant the lobbies outside the houses of Parliament where deals took place.

STEVE EMBER: Lobbying is a major industry in Washington. A company or interest group often hires professional lobbyists to do the job.

Estimates for two thousand nine show that close to three and a half billion dollars was spent to influence Congress and the Executive Branch.

Much of the work is done by law firms that specialize in influencing the legislative process and rules enforcement. One of these law firms is Patton Boggs.

Nicholas Allard is a partner at the firm, and says lawyers play an important part in lobbying.

NICHOLAS ALLARD: "If laws are not drafted correctly, or if they’re not implemented in a fair way so that you have a common rule applied universally in similar situations, you have bad results and bad policy."


Ken Vogel is with the Politico newspaper in Washington. He says sometimes lawmakers follow the lead of the lobbyists.

KEN VOGEL: "Some cases, there are lobbying groups that are actually so successful and have so much influence they’re able to write bills, propose bills, for members of Congress. And these members of Congress will introduce them without changing a word of them."


STEVE EMBER: Federal laws govern the process of lobbying. There are also ethics rules for members of Congress and the administration. Mark Rom, a professor at Georgetown University, talks about these rules.

MARK ROM: "We’re always testing where those boundaries are and where those rules are. Here’s the big thing: giving money to get something done – that’s illegal. Talking with someone to get something done – that’s not illegal. But there are lots of ways that money comes into the political process that make those boundaries hard to define and always open to dispute."


The news media and self-appointed ethics "watchdog" groups observe how lobbying is carried out. Lobbyists have to report how much money they spend on different kinds of lobbying. Some members of Congress have been sent to jail for illegal actions like taking gifts from lobbyists to influence votes.

Another ethics issue is government decision-makers becoming lobbyists and lobbyists becoming decision-makers. Critics call this a "revolving door." It enables former lawmakers and administration officials to have a large amount of influence on laws and regulations.

The Washington Post newspaper recently found that three of out four lobbyists for the oil and gas industry used to work in the federal government. Many worked in positions that regulated those industries.

Lobbyist Nicholas Allard says this is the important question when someone leaves the government: Is there a conflict of interest, and is the person benefiting from his or her former government service?

Former senator John Breaux left the Senate and became a lobbyist for Patton Boggs. He was criticized for doing that. His answer? "I have been in government my entire life. What do you expect me to become -- an auto mechanic?"


STEVE EMBER: Lobbyists are expected to be able to reach important people who decide on laws and policies. Reporter Tim Carney at the Washington Examiner newspaper says knowing the right people is important.

He says a lobbyist might be somebody who used to work for a particular congressman. So the lobbyist can easily get a meeting with that congressman.

Ken Vogel of the newspaper Politico says lawmakers are targeted in many ways. Traditional lobbying is meeting in an office. But there are also advertisements in newspapers, on the subway and on television.

All of this is designed to do the same thing -- to influence the decisions that are made in Washington.

One example of a multimedia lobbying campaign involves two aircraft makers, Boeing and EADS, parent company of Europe's Airbus. They are competing to win an Air Force contract to build new refueling planes.

Both companies have used traditional lobbyists. They have also put out their messages through television and newspaper advertisements and other media.

The fight also shows the growing effort of foreign corporations and even nations to use lobbyists to influence decisions in Washington.

Nicholas Allard talks about how international problems lead to international involvement.

NICHOLAS ALLARD: "Perhaps the biggest change in lobbying is that it is increasingly international and multinational. On most big policy issues -- climate change, financial services regulation – there’s widespread, almost universal, understanding around the world that you can’t act unilaterally."


BARBARA KLEIN: Washington has many research organizations known as think tanks. They examine issues and sometimes provide opinions on policy decisions.

Some think tanks research subjects like social problems, economics or defense. There are liberal and conservative think tanks. Some are neutral and some have strong political beliefs.

One of the oldest public policy research organizations is the RAND Corporation. Its headquarters are in California. The name is a short form of the term "research and development."

RAND was created after World War Two. Media Relations Director Jeffrey Hiday says the term "think tank" dates back to that time. He says the idea was that RAND was a place where people were "putting their heads together" and thinking.

But RAND likes to call itself a research organization instead of a think tank. It says it remains neutral on the issues it studies.

STEVE EMBER: John Bolton was United States ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. Mr. Bolton is now with a think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, or AEI. He says think tanks differ in many ways.

JOHN BOLTON: "There’s a huge range of difference among the various institutions. Some are philosophically based. Some do work for the government on government contracts addressing particular issues. Others, like AEI, and Brookings, Heritage, CSIS are completely funded independently of the government."

Brookings and Heritage are the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation. CSIS is the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

BARBARA KLEIN: Most think tanks are set up as nonprofit organizations. They get money to operate from foundations, individuals and corporations.

Mark Rom at Georgetown University says some think tank experts not only do research on issues. They also develop proposals for legislation and then try to gain support for them. In effect, they become lobbyists.

They meet with members of Congress and the Executive Branch and say "Here is what we found and here is what you should do." Mr. Rom says examples of such advocacy can be found among think tanks that deal with social issues, the environment and nuclear disarmament.


Some think tanks separate research and activism. The idea is to avoid possible conflicts as an organization doing both activities.

One example is the Center for American Progress. Chief Operating Officer Neera Tanden says her group is interested in moving ideas in a progressive direction.

She says part of the organization works like a traditional think tank. Policy experts study problems and decide what the solutions should be.

Then the American Progress Action Fund tries to gain support for the ideas in Congress, in the White House and in the media.

BARBARA KLEIN: Think tanks have yet another role in Washington.

They provide a place where officials of former administrations can continue to work on policy issues. And wait for a possible return to government when their party comes back to power.

STEVE EMBER: Our program was written by Shelley Gollust with reporting by Jeffrey Young. I'm Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I'm Barbara Klein. You can find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.