High 6: Lobbyists

Lobbyists in the hallways of the State Capitol when the House and Senate are in session.


As you’ve gone through school, you’ve read about how members of Congress and of the state legislature get together and make laws. You’ve also no doubt seen the wonderful Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m just a bill” that tells you about committees and vetoes and things like that.

Now we’re going to talk about some things that they didn’t tell you in Schoolhouse Rock. We’re going to talk about an occupation that you’ll see talked about on television and you’ll read about in the newspaper. That job is called a lobbyist.

Put simply, a lobbyist is someone who attempts to influence the legislative process on behalf of someone else. Much like a lawyer represents a client in court, a lobbyist represents a client when it comes to making laws. In fact, the job of lawyer is so similar to the job of lobbyist that many lawyers are lobbyists.

The hallways of the Cordell Hull Building, where the legislators have their offices, can get rather crowded.

Many people have strong opinions about the profession of lobbying. Although it is not our role to defend or attack the world of lobbying, here are some points we’d like to make:

* There are more than five hundred people who lobby the Tennessee General Assembly. The reason we know this is because they are required to register with the Registry of Election Finance.

* Some lobbyists represent individual companies, such as Federal Express or Wal-Mart. Others represent groups of companies; a lobbyist might represent all the hospital companies or all the construction companies. Others represent people who all have certain occupations, such as all the plumbers or all the farmers. Finally, others represent people who have organized to support or oppose a certain cause, such as the American Civil Liberties Union or Americans for Prosperity.

* Just because an organization has a lobbyist doesn’t mean it has a full-time lobbyist. Most lobbyists represent several different clients.

James Wrye is one of the lobbyists for the Tennessee Education Association.  PHOTO: TN Lobbyist Association

* You’d be amazed to know how many people who live in Tennessee have a lobbyist. Take the school system, for instance. Teachers have lobbyists, since both the Tennessee Education Association and Professional Educators of Tennessee have representatives at the Capitol. Your guidance counselor is represented by the Tennessee Counseling Association. Your principal is represented by either the Tennessee Principals Association or the Tennessee Association of Secondary School Principals. School superintendents have a statewide organization called the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, and it has a lobbyist. People who are on your local school board are represented by the lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association. See what we mean?

Dale Lynch is the lobbyist for the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. PHOTO: TN Lobbyist Association

* Most of the lobbyists know each other and are used to the idea of working together on some issues and then working against each other on others.

* The general public seems to think all lobbyists make lots of money. Some do. But some barely get by. And some lobbyists don’t get paid at all. They are known as “volunteer” lobbyists, and they lobby for causes because they believe strongly in them.

So why do lobbyists exist? This is something that most people don’t fully understand, and it has to do with how complicated the world is today.

Susan Martin is the lobbyist for “Tennesseans for Student Success” — whatever that is! PHOTO: TN Lobbyist Association

In Tennessee there are many laws. There are laws that regulate fishing and hunting. Laws that govern nursing homes, fast food restaurants, and banks. Laws that tell your school system what it has to teach, and that tell your school system how they have to punish students.

For example… if a student in Tennessee’s public schools is caught with a weapon at school, they must be expelled — and that includes pocket knives. Your principal does not have the authority to give such a student a lesser punishment.

Ben Torres is the lobbyist for the Tennessee School Board Association. PHOTO: TN Lobbyist Assocation

It’s a lot to keep up with. In an average session, more than 2,000 bills are proposed at the Tennessee General Assembly. Many of these bills were, in fact, written by state legislators, who proposed them because it was their idea or the idea of one of their constituents. But many of these bills were actually written by lobbyists, who are able to get a state legislator to sponsor their bill on their behalf. And, likewise, they are are often opposed by other lobbyists, who are sometimes able to convince state legislators to oppose the bill on their behalf.

We’ve learned a lot so far in this Advanced Civics section. Click here to take an interactive quiz on what you have learned so far.

And now, let’s look at another group of important people in this process: reporters. Click here.