How do pressure groups and lobbyists fit into the democratic system? Are they necessary? Are they harmful?

The first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives citizens the right to "petition the government for the redress (setting right) of grievances." It does not say that the government must take action. That's where lobbyists and pressure groups come in.

A professional lobbyist is one who works full-time and is paid for it. He or she might work for a company (General Motors or Gulf Oil, for example) or a union (United Auto Workers; the Teamsters). Such a lobbyist might work for a professional association (the American Medical Association; the National Education Association) or a citizens'group (Common Cause; Public Citizen). Even foreign governments hire lobbyists to represent them in Washington.

Many lobbyists work without pay for a cause they believe in.

Congress is swarming with lobbyists. The clerk of the House of Representatives stated in 1987 that more than 8,500 lobbyists were at work in Washington. That means there are 10 to 20 lobbyists for every Representative and Senator.

Although the number of lobbyists is smaller, state legislatures too are under heavy pressure from them. When California passed a strict law requiring all lobbyists to register, 635 individuals identified themselves as lobbyists in the first year alone.

Do lobbyists help, or hinder, sound lawmaking?

When they describe their own jobs, lobbyists like to stress the information-sharing part of their work. For instance, some years ago, when an important highway bill was before Congress, spokesmen for three big pressure groups worked to influence the bill: the trucking lines, the railroads, and the American Automobile Association.

"Lobbyists for these groups paraded to my office constantly," said the late Senator Richard Neuberger of Oregon. "They presented vast quantities of facts and figures, some of which I challenged, but a lot of which were accurate and impressive. Without the data made available by railroads and truckers and the AAA, I doubt if I would have felt fully qualified to reach a decision on the kind of highway bill which was best for the nation."

Adapted from Politics & People, Scholastic Inc.