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Annals Of The Third House
New legislation means to bring lobbyists out into the sunlight. History suggests they’ll bask there.
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
Ward’s lobbying debut came in 1865, when he engineered through Congress a currency contraction advocated by Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of the Treasury. Sam began with good food; he kept a house with a wonderful cook whose fare was matched by appropriate wines. The Secretary paid the bills. At such dinners, as Sam innocently explained later to an investigating committee, his carefully chosen guests from Capitol Hill and the financial community acquired the “right … to ask a gentleman a civil question, and to get a civil answer” and to acquire “information which his clients want[ed], anc that [could] be properly given.”
Sam made the rounds of the Capitol and the capital city regularly. Ht knew and was known by everyone whc counted, and he never resorted to crude pressures. On the morning of a vote, a note would arrive “on delicately tinted blue paper,” reading: “This is my little lamb. Be good. Sam Ward.” Oi course he was not above a trick 01 two; once he prevented a member adverse to a client’s interest from arriving at a committee meeting by arranging to have his boots “mislaid.” Ward sat and smoked with the simmering representative, condoling with him on his mishap. For this he admitted tc getting five thousand dollars. He generally kept his fees a secret. They could run into five figures, but he spent and lent as freely as he earned.
Ward’s efforts—an appointment here, a measure passed there—were, he insisted, neither corrupt nor easy.
He was a Democrat, and he helped keep Andrew Johnson from expulsion after the President was impeached (“I saved the country from being Mexicanized,” he bragged), but his alliances easily crossed party lines, and he was a friend of Republican stalwarts like Speaker James G. Blaine and future President James A. Garfield, the latter sharing with Sam a taste for Latin poetry.
Sam’s accomplishments—an appointment here, a claim on the Treasury there, a measure passed or thwarted—were, he insisted, neither corrupt nor easy. “To introduce a bill properly,” he said, “to have it referred to the proper committee, to see that some member in that committee understands its merits, to attend to it, to watch it … to see that members of the committee do not oversleep on the mornings of important meetings … to have your men on hand a dozen times, and to have them as often disappointed … and then to have the bird suddenly flushed, and all your preparations brought to naught—these are some of the experiences of the lobby.” He understood his calling’s bad reputation and wrote to a friend that “the profession of lobbying is not commendable but I have endeavored to make it respectable by avoiding all measures without merit.”
Profession it was by 1880, and so it remained. Space limitations preclude a discussion of modern lobbies, good and bad (for remember that publicinterest groups like Ralph Nader’s are lobbies just as surely as the petroleum or tobacco institutes). Lobbyists today operate out of big offices with sophisticated communications and declare that they are not shadowy arm twisters but information specialists helping lawmakers and officials negotiate fairly with the various interests they represent. Margaret Susan Thompson, a political scientist, argues in a relatively recent book ( The ‘Spider-Web’: Congress and Lobbying in the Age of Grant ) that even the lobbyists of Sam Ward’s vintage were not the villains that muckrakers made them. They were indispensable in helping the post-Civil War Congress, swamped by national growth and new problems, to identify constituencies, set legislative priorities, and cut through the “spider-web” of antiquated rules and personal fiefdoms.
Perhaps. I am a shade more inclined to negative thinking about lobbies, though those of the gas-lamp-and-high-hat era are fun to read about. Maybe they were and are of use in helping overcome the structural obstacles to action that clog our constitutional system. But like all forms of insider influence, they also subvert the idea of government impartially administered for everyone, not merely those with the best connections or deepest pockets. Clearly the debate is far from over.