There had been sporadic attempts before the Civil War to organize national-interest groups, most notably in the cause of abolitionism and reform; but in general the limited power of the federal government and the regional or sectional character of American life had discouraged most efforts. By 1900 national organization seemed the preferred way, and through the next thirty years the trend accelerated because of the demonstrated success of such powerful lobbies as the American Federation of Labor (founded in 1886), the National Association of Manufacturers (1895), the American Medical Association (1901), and the United States Chamber of Commerce (1912). Two cases in particular served as proof of the advantages to be gained from group action:
THE GRANGERS , or the Patrons of Husbandry, had originally banded together in the midwestern farm belt just after the Civil War for social and educational purposes, but almost immediately they recognized the political potential of their association and by 1871 had successfully lobbied the Illinois assembly into creating a state commission to regulate railroad and warehousing rates. Within three years the states of Iowa and Wisconsin followed suit. Buoyed by a favorable ruling of the Supreme Court in 1877, which held that the Granger laws were constitutional because private property devoted to public use should be subject to public control, the Grangers lobbied actively for a national railroad law to curb the power of the rail monopolies. The result was the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the beginning of the federal government’s efforts to regulate big business.
PROHIBITION, as provided for in the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act of 1919, brought to a close one of the most successful lobbying movements in the nation’s history. Its origins lay in the reform movements of the Jacksonian period and the formation of the United States Temperance Union. Tied very closely to fundamentalist religious groups in the South and Midwest, the temperance lobbies had succeeded in temporarily drying up twenty states by 1861, but postwar legislatures undid much of the work in all but a handful of states. Undaunted, the temperance forces gained momentum with the establishment of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874 and the Anti-Saloon League in 1896. By the turn of the century there was a nationwide network of loose alliances, including a number of political groups, that moved forward on many fronts: distributing literature, working actively with church groups at the state and local level, staging marches and public rallies, and, above all else, bombarding Congress with demands that a national law be passed. The turning point came in 1917, with the entrance of America into World War i. Pointing to the seventeen states that were again dry and drawing heavily on the anti-German sentiment already visible in other ways (the banning of German-language texts in the schools, for example), the temperance lobbies made their final pitch. They pointed to the preponderance of German-Americans in the brewing industry and suggested that prohibition was patriotic at the core, and they argued that it would sharply increase the nation’s food supply during the national emergency by freeing vast quantities of grain. On December 18, 1917, Congress bowed to the pressure and sent the proposed amendment out to the states. Ratification was completed on January 29, 1919.
Although prohibition itself proved a failure, the model the temperance lobbies provided served to encourage the formation of other national-interest groups over the next twenty years. Ironically, one of the most successful was the repeal lobby that secured the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment in December, 1933, which restored the nation’s right to drink.
Three things are worth noting about lobbies in the years since World War n. The first is the increased professionalism of lobbies generally, their adoption of publicrelations and advertising techniques, and their effective use of modern technology to get their messages across. The danger, of course, is that such efforts to influence legislation are very expensive, and there is always the threat that access to Congress may be limited to the most powerful and wealthiest organizations.
A second development is the emergence in recent years of public-interest lobbies, at once an evidence of the complexity of modern government and the power Washington has to affect our lives and proof that the notion of democracy implicit in the First Amendment’s protection of the right of petition is not limited to the few. Whatever one may think of the individual programs or policies advocated by Zero Population Growth, or Common Cause, or Friends of the Earth, or Right to Life, or other such groups, there is something heartening about a political system that gives them access to the lawmaking process.