The Abramoff scandall and other scandals related to lobby influence in Congress led to widespread public disapproval of lobbies and lobbying in state and national politics during the recent election. I do not recall reading a single statement in a newspaper or hearing a single statement in the broadcast media favorable to lobbies and lobbying in politics. That universally negative assessment of lobbyism is a terrible mistake. Lobbies are an important and necessary part of democratic politics at all governmental levels. A little consideration of their function makes this clear.
Let's look first at representative government as set up by the US Constitution. The Constitution places only individual persons who are citizens in the electoral process (a definition of voters that was later expanded to include all persons regardless of family lineage, property ownership, race, and gender). The theory behind this definition at the time was that only individual persons had a natural interest and right in governance (which was an advance on the European notion that families held this natural interest). This definition functioned reasonably well, because America was then largely rural with a free-hold agricultural economy (omitting the issue of slavery). There were few large cities and few large business partnerships taking part in the nation's life. Most laws passed pertained to individuals. Legislatures were largely not involved in regulating social and economic entities.
In the nineteenth century, the social and economic life of the nation changed dramatically, with the growth of towns and cities, business partnerships and corporations, labor unions, and social organizations coming to play large roles at all levels of American life. Laws at state and national levels were passed that pertained to these new forms of social and economic organization as organizations, not just to individuals who were members of them. Despite being represented in life and law, these new organizations were not represented in Constitutional electoral processes. Since their interests were affected by politics and governance, the organizations, through their officers or through hired agents, utilized the rights of association and petition to make their collective needs, concerns, and interests known to the lawmakers whose laws affected them. They became, in other words, lobbys.
By the early twentieth century, sophisticated political observers recognized that lobbys and lobbying played an important and necessary role in democratic governance (see, for instance, Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life, 1909). Lobbies were extra-constitutional (as were political parties, which are not named in the Constitution), but they were accepted, because they were essential to representing the varied constellations of economic and social interest that had grown up in the country. The Progressives began the regulation of lobbying, just as they reformed and regulated political parties.
Lobbies today do much of the heavy lifting of representation of interest. Most citizens are associated with multiples lobbies and rely upon them to make their wishes known to legislators. What is unfortunate about the controversies over lobbying is that their essential role is largely unreported in the newspapers and other broadcast news. Sometimes, in business news in the business sections of newspapers, one can infer the posiive work of lobbies behind the scenes. Newspapers could help this situation if news stores would explain to readers what is going on in lobbying, and not simply report corruption as if it were the whole story about lobbying.