The terms "lobbying" and "lobbyist" were first used in the early 19th century to refer to people who would wait in lobbies of government buildings or other meeting places to talk with legislators passing through. Generally, lobbying government institutions is advocating a particular point of view, usually on behalf of a group of like-minded individuals. Since 1998, more than 22,000 companies and organizations have lobbied the federal government, including corporations, nonprofit organizations, universities and churches.

Direct Lobbying

When lobbyists communicate with legislators, whether in person or using the telephone, letters or email, to advocate the interests of a particular group regarding a current or pending law, they are engaging in direct lobbying. Groups may hire people who work at a lobbying firm or have employees in-house who conduct these activities. Direct lobbying includes more than just members of Congress, however. High-level members of executive branch agencies, congressional and White House staff, the president and vice president also are included. Anyone in government who plays a role in formulating, modifying or adopting a law could potentially be lobbied.

Grassroots Lobbying

Groups, particularly nonprofit organizations, that communicate with the general public engage in grassroots lobbying. Whereas direct lobbying involves a representative of the group speaking directly to the government official, grassroots lobbying is more indirect. This form of lobbying includes a call to action, where the group encourages recipients of the message to contact their legislators and advocate the group's opinion on a particular piece of legislation. Often the group will include a link to the legislator's website, an email address, or a public telephone number where individuals can call and indicate they support the group's point of view.

Hired Guns

Federal law defines a lobbyist as someone hired by an organization to engage in lobbying activities, including things beyond mere direct communication with legislators. Most lobbyists spend a relatively short period of their time communicating with government officials compared to the time they spend researching and analyzing legislation, attending hearings, and monitoring their interest area for new developments. All background and preparatory work also is considered part of lobbying. Lobbyists are subject to federal regulation if they spend at least 20 hours conducting those activities for a particular organization or group during a six-month period.

Lobbying Disclosure Act Registration

Federal law requires not only lobbyists to register, but also any corporation or organization that spends more than $24,500 in a six-month period on lobbying services. All registered groups also are required to submit a disclosure form twice a year listing the issues lobbied, the names of the lobbyists used, and the government agencies or officials contacted. The secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House of representatives oversee this disclosure process. Organizations that don't have their own in-house lobbying agents may hire outside lobbying firms, which take care of the legally mandated disclosure on behalf of their clients.