April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
New legislation means to bring lobbyists out into the sunlight. History suggests they’ll bask there.
I am always a little dubious of unanimous votes like the 421-0 landslide by which the House of Representatives passed a bill to regulate lobbying at the tail end of 1995. Already adopted by the Senate 98-0, it duly went to the President, who signed it on December 19 with a ringing official blessing: “Lobbyists in the back room, secretly rewriting laws and looking for loopholes, do not have a place in our democracy.” Bravo, indeed, but my skepticism arises from the fact that lobbyists may have a long-standing bad reputation, yet they have prospered over the years in spite of it. Evidently they are doing something that Congress does not really want to terminate, and the absence of a single nay vote on the new law suggests to me that no one really expects it to brine painful changes.
The law in fact does not deny lobbyists “a place in our democracy” but simply tries to bring them out of those back rooms. It puts the “lobbyist” label on more of Washington’s hidden persuaders and demands extensive disclosures of what they are doing for whom and for how much. But bear in mind that it only strengthens the Lobby Registration Act of 1946, fully a half-century old, which had little luck in reducing the ranks and clout of lobbyists—and that law was anticipated by a failed initiative that dated back still another seventy-one years.
It was in 1875, when U. S. Grant was President, that the Massachusetts senator George Boutwell introduced a bill that would simply have accredited “respected and qualified attorneys” to represent petitioners’ interests before the legislature (a practice already in force in Great Britain). The Forty-third Congress expired before the Senate could consider it or act on a similar measure that had passed the House and which was designed to “regulate the appearance of agents and attorneys prosecuting claims or demands before Congress and the Executive Departments.” In 1876 the House adopted a simple resolution requiring “counsel or agents” of “persons or corporations” to register with the clerk, but it seems not to have been enforced.
Such measures recognized and accepted the fact of lobbying. Everyone knew it existed; lobbyists were already numerous and strong enough to be dubbed a “third house.” But the word itself was avoided in legislation as a political obscenity. Special pleading by any specific party was suspect even if the constituent did it in person. If undertaken by someone hired to do it, it was “base,” the very word used by the Supreme Court in 1874 in striking down a claim based on a law passed with the help of “lobby services.” A “man whom everybody suspects,” was The Nation ’s characterization of a lobbyist in 1869, and Walt Whitman referred to lobbyists in general as “the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth.”
But the branding iron of fiction was hottest and left a lasting imprint. In Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age (1873), which gave the era its name, a seedy promoter and a “fallen” woman join in lobbying a bill through Congress to boost the value of some worthless inherited land. At one point the cost of getting an appropriation is discussed with an expert. “A majority of the House Committee, say $10,000 apiece … a majority of the Senate Committee, the same … a little extra to one or two chairmen. … a high moral Congressman or Senator here and there—the high moral ones cost more, because they give tone to the measure … say ten of these at $3,000 each … a lot of dinners to members … lots of jimcracks for Congressmen’s wives and children—those go a long way. …” Twain and Warner at least were recognized as caricaturists, but Henry Adams’s Democracy , published anonymously in 1880, is equally devastating. The naive and highminded heroine Madeleine Lee moves to Washington to “study” politics. Among her teachers is the widow of a lobbyist who explains that she and her husband had been “hard at work all the time” because of their success in getting measures passed. How did they do it, Madeleine asks; did the members take bribes? “Some of them did. Some of them liked suppers and cards and theaters and all sorts of things. Some of them could be led, and some had to be driven. … Some of them had wives who could talk to them, and some—hadn’t. … Only now and then, when there was a great deal of money and the vote was close, we had to find out what votes were worth.”
Making due allowance for artistic license in these still-readable books, we find some fire in the smoke. The Grant-era scandals were malodorous tales of bribery and deceit, and real, not make-believe, lobbyists were in the thick of them. But it’s unlikely that any lobbyist fitted the description in John W. De Forest’s novel Honest John Vane of men with “greasy garments, brutish manners … and sickening conversation.” Certainly not Sam Ward, known in his time as “King of the Lobby.” He was a poet, linguist, bon vivant , gourmand (with ample paunch), and wit, as much at home in London or Paris as in Washington or New York high society. He made and lost several fortunes in a lifetime of friendships with bankers and bohemians alike. Discreet, charming, unwedded to absolutes (unlike his abolitionist sister, Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), he was the perfect go-between for clients who needed government help and officials who needed convincing. In his full-bodied magnetism he compares to modern lobbyists, who court anonymity, as Carnegie and Vanderbilt do to today’s unpublicized CEOs.
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.
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.