K Street refers to the area in downtown Washington, D.C. where many lobbyists, lawyers and advocacy groups have their offices. It’s become a term to refer to the lobbying industry as a whole.
In fact, the Washington Post has noted that most major lobbying firms don’t operate out of K Street any more. Only one of the top twenty lobbying companies still has a K Street address. The move away from K Street started in the 1980s, but the term still retains its original meaning as a shorthand for the lobbying industry.
“K Street” is generally a derogatory term. It’s used as a synonym for influence peddling and for the power of special interests. In fact, the term K Street is widely used as a symbol for the problems that many people see with the federal government.
K Street is widely criticized for the influence it exerts over politicians. Analysts argue that lobbyists working for, say, the pharmaceutical industry are influencing legislation in a way that benefits the industry, rather than ordinary Americans.
In 2019, the top spenders on lobbying included healthcare and insurance companies, tech firms, and broadcasters. Americans of all political stripes tend to distrust lobbyists, seeing them as favoring “special interests” over the good of the broader population.
K Street also comes under widespread criticism because of the so-called “revolving door” between Capitol Hill and the leading lobbying firms. The complaint is that former federal employees get jobs as lobbyists, consultants, and strategists; at the same time, one-time lobbyists get jobs as federal employees. The result, some say, is a permanent ruling class that can easily turn into an echo chamber.
Lobbyists argue that, in fact, they are exercising a key first amendment right. The first amendment protects five key rights and forbids Congress from enacting any laws that would restrict those rights. The fifth right protected by the first amendment is the right of the people to petition their government for redress of grievances.
Lobbyists argue that they are simply the professionals charged with allowing people to exercise their first amendment rights to petition their government and advocate for their cause. As the government grows bigger and more complicated, petitioning the government also becomes more and more complicated. It’s not something that an ordinary citizen can do; in the modern world, petitioning the government needs to be done by a professional lobbyist.
The term “lobbyist” dates back to 18th century England, when men known as “box-lobby loungers” began hanging around in the lobbies of London theaters. The lobby loungers weren’t there to watch a play – they were there to meet the wealthy and powerful Londoners who attended the theater. It wasn’t long before lobby loungers appeared in American theaters too. The term “lobbyist” was first used in a political sense in the 1810s; it was first seen in print when a New York newspaper described a man named William Irving as a “lobby member” of the New York legislature.