What good is a lobbyist?

Many people here the word “lobbyist” and think of dirty deals being made in the halls of Lansing or Washington, D.C. Is that true? Has a lobbyist ever done anything good for you?

Let’s play a word association game. When you hear the word “lobbyist”, what is the first word that comes to mind? Money? Corruption? Evil? Many people have a negative view of lobbyists without understanding what they do.

A lobbyist is a person who tries to influence decision-makers to their ways of thinking. Lots of organizations have lobbyists. Farmers, doctors, hunters, teachers, radio stations, Native American tribes and many other organizations have lobbyists. No matter what your job or place in society, there is probably a lobbyist in Lansing, Michigan, and Washington D.C. working on your behalf, whether you realize it or not.

Why do we have lobbyists?

  • “Regular people” don’t have time. If the Michigan Legislature tried to pass a law that would have a huge impact on your life, would you be able to drive to Lansing and tell them how it affects you? Probably not. Most of us are busy with family, school, work and hobbies and would not be able (or willing) to connect with legislators about an issue that is important to us.
  • Time-sensitivity. In the lawmaking process, things can go very slow or very fast. It can be difficult to know what is happening on a particular day. Nothing could happen on an issue for months, and then several important things could move through in one day. It is difficult, especially for someone not in the capital, to keep track of everything going on. A lobbyist can focus on keeping track of legislation around a particular topic.
  • Relationships. How many people do you trust? How many people would you believe what they told you, without fact-checking it first? If a stranger came up to you and spouted some random information, would you believe them? It takes time to build relationships with anyone, including legislators. Lobbyists build relationships with legislators, particularly those in committees of interest. For example, a lobbyist from Farm Bureau would have a good relationship with those legislators on the Agriculture Committee. If you attempted to talk to the same legislator about the same issue, your words might not be trusted, because you don’t have the same relationship.
  • Skill in changing minds. How many people do you know that can change your mind? Changing someone’s mind is very difficult. It is a skill, like athletic or singing ability, which can be honed through practice, but some people are better at it than others. For example, I am a lousy basketball player. I could probably improve with practice, but it is doubtful I would ever be good enough to play in the NBA. Influencing others is a skill that some people are better at than others. Lobbyists act as professionals in changing the minds of policymakers.

For clarification, many individuals do lobbying. The legal definition of a lobbyist in Michigan is someone who spends more than $1,000 in a year on trying to influence members of the legislature or executive branch. If they are lobbying for something you care about, whether that is the well-being of children or firearms rights, you might be glad for their influence. If they are lobbying something you oppose, you might wish they weren’t there.

If you were an elected official, how do you balance input from lobbyists compared to input directly from the people who voted for you? Do you think lobbyists have too much influence? If so, what could you do to change their influence without hindering free speech protections?

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways MSU Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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