Peter Grier: The lobbyist through history: villainy and virtue





[Peter Grier is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor.]

Lobbyists have besieged the US government for as long as it has had lobbies.

One of the first was William Hull, an ex-Revolutionary War officer who in 1792 was hired by fellow veterans from Massachusetts to press a claim for back pay they felt the nation still owed them for winning its liberty. Mr. Hull – a proud-looking sort with luxuriant hair – traveled to Philadelphia (then the nation’s capital) and discovered that no other state had sent a similar representative.

So he did what any modern K Street operative might do – he rounded up a coalition. He sent letters to veterans groups around the country, urging them to dispatch agents just like him to help Congress make up its mind.

Unfortunately, at the time, US finances were not exactly stable (sound familiar?) and Hull failed, mostly.

Later in life, he became the first governor of the Michigan Territory, and surrendered Detroit to the British in the War of 1812 under debatable circumstances. He was tried for treason and sentenced to be shot. President Madison reprieved him due to his Revolutionary service.

Hull’s career thus sums up three primary tenets of the lobbyist’s art:

1. Lobbying is a scramble. It’s not just quiet meals with powerful people – Hull talked to President Washington as often as he liked. You’ve got to keep moving, find allies, cover all the many arms of the government involved in your issue.

2. Lobbyists lose as often as they win. Getting something done in Washington is hard – just look at what’s happening with healthcare reform. Yet the city is full of lobbyists and trade associations engaged in the Sisyphean task of trying to get Congress to accept a particular legislative provision, or the bureaucracy to agree to their interpretation of a disputed regulation...

... By the 1850s, the armsmaker Samuel Colt was passing out gift pistols in Washington in an attempt to get Congress to extend his patent on revolvers. One was presented to the son of a representative, a boy of 11 or 12, according to Senator Byrd’s research.

That sort of theme earned lobbyists a poor reputation. Walt Whitman called them the “lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth.”

Sam Ward, for his part, was the Jack Abramoff of his era. Sometimes he sent letters on the stationary of congressional committees, as a sort of hint about his clout. He could often be found at Welcher’s restaurant, advising the chef and entertaining clients, often from steamship companies and railroads. (Abramoff owned his own restaurant, “Signatures.” It’s closed.)

The House first required lobbyists to register in 1876. By the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, attempts to rein in excesses were in full gear. Success came piece by piece, however. It wasn’t until 1946 that Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, which required more extensive disclosures, defined who constituted a “lobbyist,” and made disclosure of lobbying expenditures the law...

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Arnold Shcherban - 9/30/2009

This socio-political institution has to be banned, since it is a parody on democracy, not an expression of the latter.

History News Network