- Historic Sites
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
In fact, it is the ease of access that makes the third development in recent years most compelling and perhaps most significant. In 1946, at long last, Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act to bring the lobbies under formal control. The movement toward reform had begun at the state level some seventy years earlier, when Georgia outlawed improper lobbying in 1877. But continued progress was painfully slow. Despite the clear evidence of widespread abuse—Congress held eight major hearings after 1913 on various bribery attempts alone—little was done. Proposed general legislation in 1928, 1935, and 1936 died on the House or Senate floor. A breakthrough of sorts came afterward with the passage of special lobbying laws affecting the electrical utilities industry, the merchant marine, and agents for foreign governments.
Welcome as the 1946 law was, it was—and is—only a beginning, and most critics are convinced the law is too riddled by loopholes to be an effective deterrent to the misuse of the lobbies’ powers. Because of narrow limits in defining a lobby—the influencing of legislation must be the principal intent of the organization or individual—many corporations and many powerful special-interest groups, like the National Association of Manufacturers or the National Rifle Association, have never registered. According to decisions by the Supreme Court only direct contact with members of Congress is covered by the law; thus letterwriting campaigns, campaign contributions, and other lobbying techniques are not controlled, nor is testimony offered to a congressional committee. Most important of all, the reporting of expenditures is so loosely defined that lobbies are often free to spend vast sums with impunity. The American Medical Association, for example, allegedly spent an estimated million dollars on advertising in opposition to Medicare in 1965 but was legally required to report only about $45,000 in direct lobbying. More recently the Association of American Railroads spent upward of nine million dollars in a three-month advertising campaign on radio and television and in the press to enlist public support for the Surface Transportation Act of 1972; the association officially reported lobbying expenses of $4,972.13 for the period.
Every effort to strengthen the law has failed—often by substantial margins—and Congress has shown a similar reluctance to draft stronger legislation than is now available in three related areas: campaign financing, the personal disclosure of the financial interests of members of the House and Senate, and standards of ethical conduct for the nation’s representatives.
The need for such legislation is clear. Despite the disappearance of the old-style lobbyists, conflicts of interest, bribery, and patently illegal attempts to influence legislation are still a part of the lawmaking process. Since 1971, for example, two members of the House and four of their associates have been convicted of lobbying violations. At least two senators have been indicted by grand juries. And the campaign-financing scandals revealed in the Watergate hearings merely underscore the need for reform. The right to lobby is too important to us all to have it unprotected from misuse.
The word “lobby” had entered the English language as a noun by the sixteenth century. A lobby was originally a passage or covered walk in a monastery, but by 1640 the word had been applied to the entrance hall and two corridors where members of the British House of Commons retired to vote and where, on occasion, they might meet nonmembers who were not allowed on the chamber floor. By 1808, during the sessions of the Tenth Congress, the word had taken on its current meaning; it had entered the general vocabulary by 1832, when “lobbying” was in use as well. “To lobby” had entered the American language by 1848, “lobbyist” by 1863. “Boodle” and “boodler#8221;—signifying “bribe” and “grafter,” respectively—were in general use in the 1880’s. “Influence peddler” was coined in the 1930’s and “five percenter” in the 1940’s.