How Washington, D.C., Lobbyists Exercise the Right to Petition

Essentially, lobbying is exercising the right to petition in Washington, D.C. Our Founding Fathers may have thrown British tea overboard, but they decided to keep something else British around: the right to petition.

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 affirmed that “it is the right of the subjects to petition the King and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.” That right is so important to our democracy that our Founding Fathers enshrined the concept in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The right to peaceably assemble means that people can gather to discuss their opinions. It also guarantees the right of association in groups, such as political parties, labor unions, and business organizations.

The right of petition means that individuals, acting alone or as part of a group, can freely send criticisms or complaints to government officials. In 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, the American population was small enough that most people could directly petition for a “redress of grievances.”

But today, with a population of more than 300 million people, direct petitioning is no longer feasible. That’s why U.S. citizens need representatives — lobbyists — to petition on their behalf.

The term lobbyist was coined during President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration (1869–1877) when petitioners for government favor or assistance would assemble in the lobby of the famous Willard Hotel in downtown D.C. in the hope of gaining an audience with members of Grant’s inner circle. That image seems quaint now, when lobbying is such huge business and takes place in so many ways.

The big business aspect of lobbying is what many people object to; at its height in 2010, it was a $3.5 billion industry employing almost 13,000 registered lobbyists — and that’s just reported lobbying at the federal level. Lobbying also takes place at the local, county, state, and international levels.

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