Obama wanted to stop the lobby, too

Lobbying in the US is as old as the republic, its function enshrined in the first amendment to the constitution guaranteeing the right of the people "to petition the government for a redress of grievances". The petitioning has turned into a massive industry that, like it or not, is an integral part of today's Washington politics. Like many of his predecessors, President Obama came to office vowing to clamp down on the lobbyists to "clean up government". Experience suggests he is unlikely to succeed.

There are tens of thousands of lobbyists, spending anywhere between $3.5bn (£2.3bn) and $10bn a year, depending on what definition is used. They even have their own nickname of "K Street", after the downtown thoroughfare where many leading firms are based.

The more complicated and far-reaching the legislation, the better the business for lobbyists. An estimated 3,000-plus were involved with the healthcare bill that Mr Obama signed into law yesterday, reckoned to be the biggest lobbying bonanza in 25 years.

The conventional image of a lobbyist is of a sleek, well-paid huckster, fattened on Martini lunches, showering members of Congress and their aides with favours of every kind – including help in rounding up campaign contributions – as they try to bend new laws to the liking of their clients in industry, business and finance. Hence the complaints that, in the US, the system is for sale to the highest bidder.

In fact these "special interests" include not only Wall Street banks, pharmaceutical companies and defence contractors – but also environmentalists, gun enthusiasts and advocates of almost every cause under the sun. The problem area is where lobbying becomes corruption. At their best lobbyists channel expert information into the legislative process. At its worst, lobbying is no more than bribery.

Very rarely, though, has it been shown that a member of Congress took money in direct return for a vote. Sometimes payback comes later, as they slip through "the revolving door" and become lobbyists themselves – naturally for much higher salaries. The process, in short, is not black and white, but countless shades of grey.

$10bn

The amount spent each year by the tens of thousands of US lobbyists.

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