WASHINGTON — WHEN lobbyists wanted to influence Congress a decade or two ago, they'd march up to Capitol Hill, meet with lawmakers, and request action. No longer. Today most Washington interest groups organize something that looks like a genuine grass-roots campaign, except that the strings are pulled from Washington.
Analysts here say the use of this pseudo-grass-roots approach is the most important change in recent years in Washington lobbies. But it is far from the only one.
The most obvious development is that the number of lobbyists has risen steadily, from 4,800 in 1980 to 6,821 at the end of last month, according to the Senate Office of Public Records.
``More lobbying has moved from states and communities to the District of Columbia as the federal government has taken over much that formerly was done by state and local governments,'' says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Lobbyists aren't complaining: ``It's easier to lobby one government than 50,'' Mr. Besharov notes.
This trend may be reversed if states keep increasing their role in domestic programs as Washington continues to reduce its role. Battles in several state legislatures during the past year on abortion and gun control may be a forerunner of events to come: They brought forth heavy lobbying from all sides in those state legislatures.
Political scientists note another development that affects lobbying: Rising sentiment across America for stronger ethics in government. Fueled by the savings and loan and other scandals, and by public rage at last year's congressional pay raise, members of Congress appear to be much more cautious in dealing with lobbyists - especially when it comes to what might be perceived as sources of questionable income, like honoraria. Congressional investigations dealing with the issue of honoraria led last year to the resignations of House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas and House majority whip Tony Coelho (D) of California and this month to a Senate ethics committee hearing involving David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota.
But of the changes affecting lobbying during the past 10 years, the direct-from-the-district appeal has been the most significant.
This is an approach that the National Rifle Association and other opponents of gun control have been using effectively for years to generate letters and phone calls opposing gun control. Although polls consistently report that the majority of Americans want gun control, lobby-generated letters from home districts persuaded individual members that it was too politically risky to vote for controls.
Lobbies use this approach because it works. ``If we were to generate 500 letters to any congressman's office, I guarantee you we would have his attention,'' says Horace Deets, executive director of the 32 million-member American Association of Retired Persons.
Members of Congress realize that many letters on any individual issue may signal a lobby-generated campaign. But the mail also shows that a sizeable number of voters are exercised by the issue. Because the outcome of a close election could hinge on how these people vote - lobby campaign or no - elected officials pay attention to their views.
For all the changes, one aspect of lobbying in Washington remains constant: Interest groups continue to provide important information to members of Congress and their staff.
``Lobbying can be a very educational experience although there's a pejorative attached to the word,'' says former Sen. Charles Mathias of Maryland.
Nelson Polsby, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, adds, ``The most effective lobbyists are those who provide information that, over the long haul, is reliable and fair.''