When is Lobbying Just a Bribe?

I would venture that I am in the majority that find it extremely difficult to distinguish between bribery, lobbying and campaign contributions. The elite would have us believe that there is a clear distinction between the two in that lobbying and campaign contributions are an effort to influence power and that this is critical to a functioning democracy and that bribery is an effort to buy power, and that this makes the world of difference.

Apparently the first popular campaign requiring significant funding in the history of the United States was organized in 1828 by Martin Van Buren to support the Democratic Party and the election of Andrew Jackson. As Federal and State governments increasingly began regulating and curtailing how businesses could ethically and effectively operate in the interests of the people, corporations and those with money began to target their extensive resources at politicians that were best aligned with their own interests.

Many attempts have been made in the past to address this perception that democracy is being corrupted by all this money flowing into the system. One can be forgiven for suggesting that the Democratic Party in particular that once championed the cause of the less privileged amongst us, now appear to be far more interested in following the money than the will of the majority.

The Federal Election Act of 1971 for example attempted to limit and restrict campaign contributions but much of it was overturned by the Supreme Court in the Buckley vs Valeo case (1976). The court ruled that limits on campaign contributions violated the First Amendment. Is it merely coincidental that this would have been a similar court that interpreted Roe vs Wade on limits to abortion as being unconstitutional?

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.

It is the last part that the Supreme Court interpreted as the right to use the resources at your disposal to lobby the government to address things that you do not like.

If one accepts this interpretation, then the distinction between legitimate lobbying and outright corruption appears to be the existence of a quid pro quo - “a specific intent to give or receive something of value in exchange for an official act. To buy power, rather than merely to influence it. This puts the onus on the prosecution to prove that the contribution resulted in a political action that would not have happened had the contribution not been made. This causal relationship is extremely difficult to prove and only appears to have been successful in a limited number of cases in the past. The further challenge facing the prosecution is the requirement to prove that the resultant action must be proven to be as a result of a prearrangement between contributor and the candidate.

The likelihood of proving a quid pro quo is reduced when there is an absence of evidence of prearrangement and coordination between the candidate and the contributor. The emphasis here is clearly that the courts will err on the side of the presumption of innocence until the prosecution has established the presence of corruption beyond reasonable doubt.

Now this can impact one personally. The company I was working for in the USA at the time needed preferential access to a resource that the federal government had total control of. It was therefore deemed necessary by my organization to lobby with the government to try to influence them that my company’s chosen course of action was in the interests of the American people. As an employee it was clearly my duty to represent our position and was more than willing to do so. The challenge came when it was realized that my company could not make direct contributions to an appropriate Political Action Committee (PAC) as contributions had to be from individuals not corporations. My corporation then instituted a process where an appropriate contribution could be deducted from our paychecks every month, all we had to do was check a box. We were assured that this was clearly voluntary, but most felt rightly or wrongly that if they did not tick the box, their careers would be negatively impacted. I did not tick the box as I did not believe that the proposed action was in America’s interest, I felt that the whole PAC process amounted to a bribe, and the process used by my company amounted to coercion. I am pleased to report that it does appear that my fears were unfounded as I suffered no apparent adverse treatment as a result of my chosen course of action. Does the fact that others were more compliant because that did not feel they had any choice weigh in on the discussion or is that merely a misinterpretation of what is actually going on here?

Bottom line is I’m still working on trying to clarify the distinction between legitimate influencing through a contribution which ultimately leads to a smoother running society and a bribe in which an individual profits at the expense of the community. I fear my remaining time on this Earth might be insufficient to be able to successfully resolve this issue.


It’s also a combination of protection racket and influence peddling. They should make CEOs sign a document stating that they understand that not lobbying is harmful for their companies health. The real problem is the extent of the influence in America. In the UK, we’ve have several scandals surrounding cash for questions and former ministers offering ‘help’ to see that the treasury is aware of special circumstances surrounding particularly large tax bills, but I can’t think of an instance where a large corporate interest had a hand in drafting regulations and industry standards which worked to the detriment of smaller competitors- but in America this practice seems commonplace.

A good example would be bakeries. One government agency will fine a small baker if the doors to the bakery area are open out. Yet another agency will fine the same baker if the doors open in. Larger corporate bakeries can of course afford roll up doors which keep both agencies happy…


This reminds me of a question that I think is comparable to the OP’s idea on some level: is there such a thing as pure altruism?

I think we need to start with definitions. You’ve differentiated “influence power” vs “buy power”, which works.

I would suggest that “bribe” involves quid pro quo. I give you some input (money, effort, time) in exchange for your consideration in a way that directly benefits me; whether that consideration benefits others, or not, is a non-essential element.

“campaign contribution” is my input (be it money, effort, or time) to elevate you to a decision-making position, based on my perception of your values etc, which I believe will result in your policy choices that will be a NET benefit to me in aggregate, but may not always benefit me in every circumstance.

The commonality is that they’re both done with the expectation or hope that i will benefit from them in some way. The difference is in the pathway to reaping that benefit, and the extent of it.

I’m inclined to think “lobbying” is much closer to bribe than it is to campaign contribution.

As relates to my point about altruism, would someone make a campaign contribution, lobby, or bribe, on a position from which they perceive no personal benefit? I don’t think so.


Does guilt qualify as altruism? Alfred Nobel came up with the peace prize after he saw the detective power of his contribution to society - dynamite. Bill Gates wants to eradicate Small Pox entirely.

It is therefore possible that some folks might lobby on behalf of something they perceive as good and not necessarily in their interest.

I agree with you that it appears to be a matter of degree.

Campaign contribution - put someone in the job that naturally favors the result you want.
Lobbying - influence someone by exposing them to the way you think.
Bribe - offer someone money if they agree to adopt your position on something.

Also, somewhere in the mix of ‘campaijgn contributions’ and ‘lobbying’, there is ‘infliuence peddling.’ The ostensible role of lobbyists is to educate the decision makers, perhaps get people to meet face-to-face to work together. But in the mix, there are individuals who are accruing for themselves intangible power and influence. Some of them purport to be doing good works, but they also may be trading inappropriate favors. Jeffrey Epstein protected a lot of people and had a lot of people protecting him.


I’m not sure I understand. In my perception, the question might be ‘would an act that helps the person to assuage their sense of guilt still qualify as an act of altruism?’. But it seems the mere assuaging of that guilt would be a personal benefit/gain, which would still render that act not to be a purely altruistic one. I suppose the next question might be ‘did Nobel forming a peace prize actually assuage his guilt from inventing dynamite’…but then the follow up question would be whether it is the effectiveness, vs the intent, of assuaging guilt that factors into the altruism assessment.

On the continuum btw campaign contribution and bribe, where do you place lobbying? I consider it more sinister than merely halfway.

I agree with this as a concept. But I cannot come up with an example.

That’s an interesting twist. I consider "contribution’, ‘lobby’, and ‘bribe’ to all be on the buyer side of the ledger. Your example would be a seller in my conception.

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You mean your worked for a labor union? But I thought union dues were not voluntary…

I have to say that if this “fear” is anything other than a simple nuisance, you must lead a pretty charmed life… And while I can’t be sure, I don’t think there will be a test at the end so you might be safe never knowing the answer…

No, the coercion impacted senior managers only.

It is a common figure of speech. Specially for you I will rephrase the sentence. I think that I am unlikely to succeed in my quest to clarify what is a bribe and what is a legitimate enabler. I tend to pursue topics like this with the intent of finding the answer. I think that this might be one that I will not succeed at, so I therefore ask myself the question, why bother?

Hope that helps.

My head says it has some legitimacy, but my gut is aligned with you.

Me neither.

I was just being a smartass…

I guess one might perceive that as my response as well. I just wanted to respond me too, but was forced to come up with more characters in my response.

As philosophy students know, sometimes merely understanding the question better is a goal in itself. Our friend Obamawas is a good example of a guy who has one-sentence answers before he has really understands the question/problem.

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Rank and file Republicans tend to support tax cuts that nearly all fall on the rich. However they believe the benefits this will trickle down to them so that does not quite work. The same with rich people who support a lot of climate change legislation. Yes, the taxes will fall on them but they think the benefits for the world will be passed on to their children.

The closest I can come up with is a belief I hold. I am strongly against the death penalty. However in any individual case I tend to look at what the monster being executed did and am very glad to see them dead. Heck, I usually desire them to die in a far more horribly manner then our current methods allow. However even here, I am against it because I feel the good for society outweighs the bad. So still not a perfect fit.

I am kinda stumped too. Fun thought experiment though!


True, but it takes two to tango, and in almost all cases laws against bribery apply to the buyer and seller alike, with similar penalties on either side

And, even while we mostly conceive of commerce in terms of buyers and sellers, there are many sorts of brokers and middlemen in between. Nancy Pelosi is a formidable fundraiser. She is ‘selling’ something to outside donors. But the money she is raising is not for her own campaign for re-elec tion to her seat representing San Francisco. The money is to be given to the loyal democractic members of congress who have elected her as speaker, and will vote consistently for whatever bills she and her committee chairs have glued together. And she has enough money at her discretion that any back-bencher who goes against her will likely be out oif a job the next time around, and certainly cut out from any influence int he near term. That’s why I’m suggesting that Power and Influence becomes its own thing which one accumulates and spends.