Sen. Bob Menendez was charged in September for secretly aiding a foreign government in exchange for bribes.
The member of the Foreign Affairs Committee has denied the allegations of corruption.
In a statement released to the press, the Senator wrote: "[The prosecutors] have misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office."
Bribery is trading something of value in order to influence the policies or decisions of an official, usually in secret.
But in U.S. politics, as Senator Menendez alludes to, there are many legal avenues for influence over government officials.
These fall under the umbrella known as "lobbying." And it's legal.
Historically, most Americans have seen lobbyists as wielding too much power, and the profession is considered somewhat unethical.
But how much does the public perception of lobbying match up with what a lobbyist actually does?
A lobbyist is a person hired by an organization to represent their interests in Congress.
They're usually hired for their particular expertise in the field, and according to Sarah Bryner with Open Secrets, most money is spent on one-on-one conversations with elected officials.
"Because the fact of the matter is that most lobbyists are just essentially paid experts on both a subject and an argumentative strategy, essentially. So, you know, they're sort of making the case for their clients interests in the same way that a lawyer and a lot of lobbyists are lawyers," said Bryner. "There is a big gaping loophole, though, which is that if you are not a lobbyist, you can do all sorts of things outside of that scope. And there are plenty of ways that you can be an influential political representative for an interest, a.k.a., you're the CEO of that company, and not meet the criteria for being a lobbyist. So you're still allowed to go and, you know, go golfing with whoever, so long as money is not exchanged in exchange for an outcome."
Social lobbying at dinners, parties, and other casual events opens the door for less 'official' forms of lobbying that require the same disclosure rules and guidance.
In one example reported by the Washington Post in August, documents from Governor DeSantis' campaign staff listed top lobbyists and clients and suggested dollar amounts. The staff discussed "selling" access to the governor in the form of social events like golf outings and dinners.
In Washington, there is unofficial guidance for toeing that line, like the so-called "toothpick rule."
The 'rule' is a general limit for how much lobbyists can feed Congress members without violating ethics. In other words, no more than what can be offered on a toothpick.
Some critics argue the line between lobbying and bribery is too blurred, with limited enforcement.
"Sometimes it falls into the category of like the House and Senate Ethics Committee, which would look into these sorts of things. And sometimes it falls into the sort of broader umbrella of the Federal Election Commission. Sometimes it's the IRS. And agencies aren't great at talking to each other about that kind of thing. And so you could see how it would be very difficult to pin down and identify exactly what is okay and what isn't, and make sure that the things that aren't okay aren't happening," said Bryner.
Lobbying is a multi-billion dollar industry with millions spent by 3,200 companies, trade associations, and other groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Some of the industries with the most spending are health care, real estate, and tech.
The amount of money spent shows a steady rise until 2009, a decline and plateau until the late 2010's, and then a steep rise as the economy recovered after COVID.
2022 saw a total lobbying revenue of $4.1 billion, the largest amount in over a decade and one of the highest spending years in history.
Much of the recent bump has come as industries reopened after COVID and lobbied aggressively for federal aid in massive COVID relief packages.
If the money spent on lobbying continues to climb and the 2024 election season ramps up, special interests will likely be back in the national conversation again.
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