I've heard some claims about "lobbyism is justified bribery", but I doubt if a modern country can legalize such mechanism.

Finally, I've lacked arguments to describe the differences, and all that I've found by searching was reinforced by phrases about "differences may be opaque".

What are the differences between lobbying and bribery in the US?


I'm just expecting some simple description of it - which would be understandable by a child, for example. Just like "look, this is bribery, and that one is lobbying".

  • 3
    What is the difference between dogs and cats? .... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lobbying en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bribery Do these answer your question?
    – James K
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 8:10
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    That's the very origin of question. The main word which causes difference is "lawfully". And the cartoon on the page about Lobbying brings direct associations with bribery. With all respect, it's like calling white cats with some another word Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 8:31
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    With all respect, but doesn't this: trying to persuade people or governments to make decisions or support something can be applied to bribery as well? Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 10:47
  • 2
    It's complicated, and there's a lot of ambiguity. You're not going to get a simple answer.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 17:17
  • 3
    The difference is getting caught or not? Or the difference is like tax optimisation v. tax evasion? Just a fine line where lawyers can tell you just how far you can go...
    – jcaron
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 16:35

8 Answers 8


Lobbying is trying to persuade decision makers to see a certain issue your way. Bribery is paying decision makers to do what you want.

The difference is in the "persuading" part: a lobbyist wants to convince the decision maker to agree with them. Whereas when you bribe someone, you fully expect them to disagree with you, but still do what you want because you pay them.

Or looking at it from the other direction: a decision maker that has been persuaded by a lobbyist believes that the choice they are making is the right choice. A decision maker that has been bribed, knows that the choice they are making is the wrong one, but they make it anyway because they are paid to.

An important differentiator is that a bribe is an exchange: "I give you money, in exchange, you vote 'Yes'". Whereas lobbying is more like: "Here is a list of all the reasons why I think voting 'Yes' is the right thing to do".

Note: this obviously does not mean that there aren't people who pretend to be lobbying but are actually bribing, nor does it mean there aren't decision makers who claim to be lobbied, when they are actually being bribed.

It's also sometimes not easy to draw a precise line between the two. Let's say, I happen to think that solar power is good both for the environment and the economy, and I invite a group of politicians to my downtown office for a workshop where I explain to them exactly the environmental and economic benefits of solar power. Considering that my workshop takes several hours, I of course provide food and beverages. And since I invited them to come to a place they would normally not have gone to, I offer to cover their transportation cost. Lastly, since I am taking up basically an entire day of their time, I am paying them a stipend equivalent to about one day's pay for an average middle-class white collar salaried employee.

Is that bribery? I mean, I did pay them money! I would argue that it is still lobbyism, since they would probably have been better off not coming to my workshop.

Now, let's say my workshop does not take one day but an entire week (but with only one 4 hour session each day and the rest of the day is free), and it does not take place in my downtown office, but in Hawaii, and I not only invite the politicians but also their families, and I cover their flights, hotels, etc.

Is that lobbyism? After all, it is not structurally different from the example before!

What if I am inviting the politicians to some exotic tropical place for two days, but that exotic tropical place happens to be fully solar-powered by one of the world's most advanced solar farms, and there happens to be no similar place closer to home than this one?

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    I don't think bribery requires disagreement. It can be an additional incentive on top off all the lobbying actions. You might for example think two companies are equally capable of fulfilling a contract and have offered the same price. But only one has an under the table incentive.
    – Jontia
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 12:11
  • If the politician would have acted the same way without the bribe, then the briber is wasting their money! In practice a successful bribe nearly ways makes the politician act in a way different to how they would have acted without the bribe. You could call that doing something they disagree with, even if it is only working faster than normal, or lowering the risk of the contract going to the other company. @Jontia
    – James K
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 16:58
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    I think it would be more accurate to say that bribery is a subset of lobbying. There's really not a distinct line between the two. To use your example, would it be bribery to hint to Senator X that if the law passes, my solar company would grow, and need some politically-astute executives by the time you leave office?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 17:01
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    I work for the government (in Germany, not USA), and it would be normally prohibited for me to accept such food and beverages, let alone the rest of what you mention. All those examples should be considered (attempted) bribery. Those politicians are travelling for work, therefore a 3rd party should fund and a 4th party (perhaps decided by a parliamentary committee) should approve the travel (likely yes if a local solar power company, likely no if a week on Hawaii).
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 7:43
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    @moonman239 Maybe a better description is that campaign contributions are like: "I hear you like to do X. Here's $10,000." Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 3:00

My version of an answer for children in Jr. High:

The first thing to know is every politician, like the Governor or a Senator, has a campaign fund that anyone can give money to. It costs at least 2 million dollars to run all of the TV ads and other stuff to win an election for congress, and just as much the next time, which means they're always trying to get campaign money. Getting it from regular people takes a lot of time, so they really like it when a big company says "here's a fat check for your re-election campaign. Let's be friends".

Now, suppose your company wants a congressperson to pass a law letting it pollute more. You can't just give them $10,000 dollars to do it. That's illegal bribery. First you have to hire an official registered lobbyist. Then your lobbyist can legally make an appointment, tell the politician that you want to pollute more, and give them $10,000 for their re-election campaign.

One difference is records. Bribes have to be secret, since they're illegal, but everyone can see what money lobbyists gave. The idea is if Congressperson X passes lots of pro-pollution laws, voters can at least see got they got lots of money from Pollution Inc. The other difference is you can't just spend campaign funds on anything, like you could bribes. People are often sneaky and find ways to turn campaign funds into their own money, but not that much and could get in trouble if it's discovered.

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    So lobbyism is bribery with a license?
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 11:18
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    "everyone can see what money lobbyists gave" - Assuming they are following all the laws. That requires trusting lobbyists and politicians to follow all the laws. History indicates neither is a good place to put your trust. Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 11:31
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    You can hide the campaign fund payment via PACs that do not require the disclosure of donors. Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 12:22
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    Money is fungible by definition. Every dollar put into the reelection campaign is a dollar not spent by the politician. And a dollar saved is a dollar earned. There are very few remaining dots to connect.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 12:59
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    @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket Actually lots (most?) of the money from lobbyists is legally given in secret. It's called Dark Money and is one of the things the "For the People" act tried to make illegal, but was predictably blocked in Congress. Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 19:56

They Are Not The Same - But They Do Intersect One Another

Not all lobbying is bribery, despite what some off-the-cuff humorous remarks may lead you to believe. On the surface, lobbyists are simply trying to encourage lawmakers to vote in a certain direction based on the personal interests of the people they represent.

But, some lobbying is bribery. And it is not illegal. In fact, there is an entire list of legally allowed 'gifts' that lobbyists can give to lawmakers on a state-by-state basis, and they use these gifts to help persuade lawmakers to vote the way they want.

You may be confused by the common connotation of "bribe", where it is used to refer to an illegal payment or gift of some value to perform an illegal activity (I.E., bribing a cop to look the other way). Not all bribes are illegal - and gift-giving from lobbyists to lawmakers is one of those non-illegal forms of bribery, so long as they follow the laws of gift-giving in the lawmaker's jurisdiction.

  • Why do you think there is such a thing as legal bribery? Certainly U.S. law defines a crime called bribery, and the professional opinion of groups like the IIA and ACFE is that bribery constitutes a crime. Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 2:58
  • @indigochild Certainly the United States defines the crime of bribery - and it very neatly and categorically defines what constitutes illegal bribery (providing directly money or items of value for a favorable political gain). And, in effect, what constitutes as legal bribery (legally providing gifts of certain types and, incidentally, suggesting certain political decisions while indulging in them with the politician, or simply mentioning the continued monetary contributions to the politician's future political campaigns).
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 12:55
  • Well, the Q mentions lobbying being called "justified bribery". Even if we think it never happens here, we have to be able to imagine something that looks exactly like bribery but is somehow legal in order to answer. Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 3:09

Depends on the country. In many countries lobbying and bribery are identical. Both are the corruption of processes through the input of money. For example paying to jump past a queue is bribery when it is immoral or illegal to do so. In the USA this type of corruption is legal. It exists because rich groups allow it to.


As someone who has been both a governmental auditor (and interested in bribery controls) and legislative staff, the difference largely comes down to the existence of a quid-pro-quo relationship. Lobbying usually doesn't involve any kind of monetary relationship, so in most circumstances the distinction is pretty clear.

Child-appropriate Answers

Suppose you are a lemon farmer.

Lobbying is just trying to persuade the government to do what you want. You could go to your government (or send someone) to tell them how great lemons are. You can tell the government what kinds of laws would help you grow more, better lemons.

Bribery involves paying the government to do what you want. If you offered the government some money to pass pro-lemon laws, this is bribery.

Campaign contributions are neither lobbying nor bribery. If you knew that some candidates were friendly to lemon farms, you could give them some money to help make sure they get elected. Unlike bribery, there is no "deal". You didn't offer them money in exchange for any particular policies, and they didn't offer anything in return for your contribution.


Under U.S. law, bribery requires a "quid-pro-quo" arrangement. This is also part of the recommended guidance provided by the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) and Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) when assessing bribery risks and controls.

You offer an elected official some kind of pecuniary incentive to do what you want. They do it, you pay them.

Lobbying is distinctly different from bribery in several ways:

  1. Lobbying typically doesn't involve any transfers of funds. Your question is somewhat based on the perception that lobbying involves campaign contributions. It doesn't. Lobbying usually involves talking to legislators and trying to persuade them to vote in your group's favor. If you offer money to do, you are potentially engaging in bribery.
  2. Campaign contributions are not bribery. For one thing, most people running for office are not already in office. You can't bribe someone who isn't a public official. Additionally, campaign contributions are not quid pro quo. The strategy is to send funding to people who are sympathetic to your policy preferences. You don't establish any kind of "this for that". My own experience (which is not representative) is that most people who work in this sphere are savvy enough to avoid anything that looks anything like a trade.
  • Are you mostly at the state level -- county auditor, state rep, where it costs very little to run for office (where you never see a TV or even radio Ad)? National politicians complain about the need to fund-raise almost every day, which seems to be where the problem lies. Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 3:14

Arguably, lobbying becomes bribery when the lobbyist provides a service from which the politician (or civil servant) personally benefits (or by extension, their friends/family benefit, or others they owe a service benefit). This can be money, but it can also be the head teacher promising the police officer that her son will get a good grade if she forgets about the teacher's traffic speeding offence, or the head teacher promising good grades to the politician's kid if the town finally fixes the potholes on the road leading to the school.

When the fishing industry invites politicians and their staff to an event where they provide free food, while lobbying for their right to continue emptying the oceans, is that just lobbying or is it attempted bribery? It's legal and considered lobbying. They invite all politicians (not just those voting in their favour). Yet the politicians are told (or implicitly know): if they pass too strict laws limiting the fishing, then maybe they won't get this free food anymore. Therefore, I think this example should still be considered attempted bribery as well (and indeed, many civil servant codes will have laws or regulations prohibiting them from accepting such free food from anyone else than their employer or a short list of trusted organisations).


Per Wikipedia:

Politicians receive campaign contributions and other payoffs from powerful corporations, organizations or individuals in return for making choices in the interests of those parties, or in anticipation of favorable policy, also referred to as lobbying. This is not illegal in the United States and forms a major part of campaign finance, though it is sometimes referred to as the money loop. However, in many European countries, a politician accepting money from a corporation whose activities fall under the sector they currently (or are campaigning to be elected to) regulate would be considered a criminal offence, for instance the "Cash-for-questions affair" and "Cash for Honours" in the United Kingdom.

So whether or not lobbying is considered a form of bribery is largely a matter of local law and custom, rather than there being a meaningful difference.


The idea that lobbying is "legalized bribery" comes from conflating lobbying and campaign finance. Lobbying is presenting arguments, and the audience can be politicians, the public, courts, or others. Campaign finance is contributing money towards a political campaign. These are completely separate issues. However, lobbying and donations can intersect in that the lobbyists may be representing donors, and so the question arises of whether the putative argument being presented is what's actually persuasive, or whether the real message is "This is what your donors want". There is the further issue of the "revolving door", in which people go from government positions to private sector positions, and sometimes back again. This creates the conflict of interest that a government employee who does what a private company wants may thereby be financially rewarded with a private sector position after leaving government.

Also, campaign finance isn't quite the same as bribery. Most campaign spending isn't money given to the candidate, but rather independent expenditures, i.e. someone paying for campaign ads to be run without involvement of the candidate. The candidate does still derive a benefit from the money, but it's not the same as money going to their bank account. And if a politician does something so that people will want to make sure that they are elected, it's rather questionable whether that's "bribery".

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