Is it right for a member of Congress to seek a favor from his or her lobbyist? After all, a lobbyist is being paid to influence laws in his company's favor — not the country's favor. If a friend of yours helped you in some way, as a lobbyist does a Congress member, would you feel obliged to help him or her at some later time? Lobbyists, of course, are hoping that Congresspeople will at least feel more friendly toward them and their companies.
Some people believe that lobbyists have too much influence. There is concern about the huge sums of money that powerful pressure groups contribute to the campaigns of members of Congress.
Lobbyists today are more closely controlled than they used to be. A law now requires them to fill out a form that gives their names, their salaries, the organizations they represent, and the money they spend on lobbying.
Even so, lobbyists can do many things which raise questions. They can give Senators and Representatives small personal gifts. They can take the members of Congress to dinner at the finest restaurants in Washington.
Are members of Congress "softened up" by a lobbyist's personal favors? Most members admit that this can happen. But they claim that it doesn't happen very often. Instead, they say that there is only one good way that a lobbyist can influence them: Lobbyists sometimes change a member's vote by presenting a strong argument.
Often there isn't time for members of Congress to study all the details of every bill. They may be unaware of a weakness in a bill unless a lobbyist points it out. It is this part of a lobbyist's job that some members of Congress find useful.
The laws do not allow a company or union to contribute to a candidate in its own name. But both companies and unions can use their own money to set up separate political action committees or PAC's. These committees raise money for their favorite political candidates by asking for contributions from employees or union members.
You may say that people need not contribute to those funds if they do not want to. But it isn't always so simple.
Pretend for a moment that you are a salesman for company X. You know that your boss likes your work and you think that you might soon be promoted to sales manager. With the promotion will come a nice salary boost.
In walks the boss one day. "Hey Joe," says he, "how'd you like to contribute $100 to our political fund? We've got to make sure that Smith gets elected. He's a friend of the company and his opponent Jones is not."
What can you do? If you say no, you might lose a few nights' sleep worrying about that promotion. Or you might not get the promotion at all.
Pretend you are a member of a union. You make a contribution to your union's political action committee. The union convention endorses Smith. You favor Jones. Nevertheless, the union committee will probably contribute your share of the political action committee to Smith's campaign.
Adapted from The Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court.