- Historic Sites
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
Most commonly they direct their efforts at the federal level to three elements of the government: to Congress and especially its committees, where perhaps 90 per cent of all laws are formulated; to the executive departments; and to the regulatory agencies. They rely, as lobbyists always have, on personal influence arising from familiarity with the lawmakers, so entertainment still produces a major expense. But more often they supply Congress with detailed information on pending legislation, going so far as to produce drafts of bills that members of Congress may incorporate in whole or in part in measures submitted to the House and Senate. They offer testimony in committee, and they monitor the work of government on a day-to-day basis. They marshal support from their constituents—the National Rifle Association, for example, has been known to produce five hundred thousand letters from its membership in seventy-two hours—and they get out the vote. In their most controversial role they supply campaign funds and campaign workers on behalf of candidates favorable to their position. They work alone or form shifting and temporary alliances with other lobbies—as in 1946 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Veterans, and the National Farmers Union joined dozens of other disparate groups in support of the employment act of that year.
The result is clear: virtually no major piece of legislation has passed through Congress or the state assemblies in this century without some lobby having had a hand in the process. For better or for worse, lobbies are an extraordinarily complex feature of our government, with a history as old as the Republic itself.
Although the word “lobbying” and its derivatives did not enter American usage until the early part of the nineteenth century, the practice had long been part of the American political experience. It is probably as old as government itself. Writing more than twenty-three hundred years ago, Plato, for example, denounced the “fawning speeches and witcheries of supplication” that certain men employed to influence the Athenian senate and proposed that any officials who took bribes should be put to death “without ceremony” for their violation of the public trust. Despite such abuses, however, Plato considered open access to the ruling powers a requisite for good government and urged that the guardians of the state always “give prompt audience to all comers. …”
By the time of the first English settlements in the New World that principle was already well established at Westminster and the royal court. Paid agents for various interests were commonplace, their appearances before Parliament and the king protected, after a fashion, by the right of petition. That ancient prerogative of the English people had come into existence long before the Norman invasion of 1066. It had been given feeble sanction in the Magna Carta and then took on new meaning in the civil wars of the seventeenth century as one of the cherished liberties of Englishmen everywhere.
The right had been granted in every colonial charter, beginning with the Virginia Company in 1609; and throughout the long history of English rule the colonists made certain that their agents, operating in London, pressed their case before Parliament, the king, the board of trade, and the host of government bureaus empowered to enforce British colonial policies. Never official members of the sprawling colonial bureaucracy, the agents were nonetheless what one historian calls “an indispensable link between the mother country and her far-flung empire.” They provided a ready and much needed competence in colonial affairs at a time when conditions in America were only vaguely understood in London. If most of the agents were native-born Englishmen who sold their services to the highest bidder—and often represented several colonies at once—when the occasion warranted, such distinguished persons as John Winthrop, Jr. (the son of the Massachusetts governor in the 1630’s), Roger Williams, and William Penn went directly to England to seek in person some special benefit for their colonies or to protest some planned change that might adversely affect their lives. And, of course, a considerable part of Benjamin Franklin’s renown was based on his work as a colonial agent in England in the years before the American Revolution.
Once the struggle with Great Britain began in earnest, the colonists immediately applied pressure to Parliament and the Crown through the increased activity of their London-based agents and through a virtual blizzard of petitions and other legal memoranda, like the Declaration and Protest of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. Lobbying was no less in evidence at the Continental Congress in 1775, especially in the first days following the battles of Lexington and Concord, when the future course of the nation was still unclear. As John Adams and the rest of the New England delegation rode into New York on their way to Philadelphia they were met on the outskirts of the city, Adams noted in his autobiography, “by a great Number of Gentlemen in Carriages and on horseback, and all the Way their Numbers increased.” At Philadelphia the delegates were in constant demand at dinner parties and evening receptions, not only because of their celebrity value, but also because amid the food and drink the leaders of the city could press their arguments for and against the American cause.