This question came up in a discussion I was having with a British friend about money in politics. I came up with a pretty vague answer (something about how they provided legislators with information and this wasn’t really my area), but I realized if I’m going to call myself a political scientist I need to have a better answer. So I dug a little deeper and here’s an initial report.
The clean, uncontroversial work that lobbyists do is to provide information to politicians. A lobbyist might provide a research report about the facts of an issue before the legislature, or perhaps some analysis of how voters and interests groups would react to different legislative outcomes. Of course this analysis will serve the interests of the lobbyist’s client, but I can’t really see an ethical problem with advocacy, and at any rate there is no practical way to limit this kind of advocacy and respect principles of free speech.
Lobbyists also of course use material means to influence legislators. Among the legal things that Abramoff did for his clients was to encourage them to provide campaign contributions to members of Congress (for example, Bob Ney) and/or their PACs. (The best source I found on Abramoff was this article in the Washington Post.) Abramoff also helped his clients give money to Christian activist Ralph Reed’s company, Century Strategies. I have no reason to think that this was itself illegal. (My sense is that Abramoff got in trouble mostly for stealing from his clients, not for the political influence he actually brought to bear.) From anecdotes like this, it is clear that the lobbyist’s role was to act as an intermediary between the interest group and political actors who have the power to get things done. (In this case, both Ney and Reed were able to support legislation that would help Abramoff’s clients, Indian tribes running a lucrative casino.) But this kind of behavior really can’t and in fact shouldn’t be stopped. One could argue that the rules about political contributions should be modified to make it harder for groups like the Indian casinos to give to politicians and activists, but it is hard to argue that intermediaries should (or could) be prevented from acting as a go-between for legal exchanges between donors and recipients.
Regulation in the wake of the Abramoff scandal has focused not on this matchmaker role but rather on the direct exchanges he and others made — the trips, meals, and other gifts that Abramoff used to cement the loyalty of Delay, Ney, and others. According to a guide to the House’s internal ethics rules, members of Congress previously faced limits on the value of gifts they could receive from any individual in the course of the year. Now, members of Congress are not allowed to receive anything at all from a “registered lobbyist, agent, or a foreign principal, or private entity that retains or employs such principals.” Gifts from other sources are subject to tighter value limits than those that applied before.
The constraint on gifts that can be given to members of Congress seems like a good idea because direct exchanges between lobbyists and legislators are unseemly. (The photo of Abramoff with Ney, Reed, and a few other staffers on a golf course in Scotland looks bad for everyone.) But it’s hard to believe that curtailing these kinds of gifts would diminish the impact of lobbyists. Interest groups want to influence policy, and as long as they have the right to contribute money to political causes, and as long as policymakers care about whether those contributions get made, there will be mutual gains from the kinds of exchanges that lobbyists can engineer. The gifts that have been banned by ethics rules represent one naive way of using interest group money to appeal to politicians. I don’t see how you can shut down the other, ultimately more powerful ways.
I need to look into what some of the current proposals are (floated by Obama and others) to cut down the influence of lobbyists. I suspect it’s just window dressing. For example, I believe that Obama’s campaign is not receiving campaign contributions from lobbyists, and criticized Hillary’s campaign for not doing the same. As with the gifts, a direct contribution from a lobbyist to a politician is merely the least imaginative way to curry favor, so eliminating these contributions can hardly be expected to have any effect on how policy gets made.