Q: When did lobbyists enter the political picture? In my opinion, they are are nothing more that legalized bribery.
L.T., of Collinsville
A: Aren’t you being a little hard on yourself?
No, really, every time you ask your alderperson to have a derelict property cleaned up, you are lobbying. When you write your congressman to vote a certain way, you are lobbying. When you sign a petition to have a law enacted, amended or repealed, you are part of a group of lobbyists. When the NAACP challenged segregated schools in court, it was lobbying.
So even though they weren’t called such, “lobbyists” likely have been around ever since humans formed the first communities and began fighting for their causes. The term itself dates back centuries, an Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer once told the BBC. It has its roots in the United Kingdom, where the public could buttonhole their representatives in the hallways (i.e., “lobbies”) of Parliament.
But as Donald deKiefer outlines in his book, “The Citizen’s Guide to Lobbying Congress,” nowhere has lobbying become as institutionalized as the United States — and for two good reasons, he explains. First, the founders of the United States did not want its leaders ignoring the opinions of their citizens as King George had ignored the pleas of the colonists. So the authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights protected the freedom of interest groups to petition the government, which guaranteed lobbyists a place in the American political system.
The structure of American government further cemented the role of lobbyists. Because the primary job of congressmen and women is to represent their constituents, they had to keep their office doors and phone lines open to keep up with voters’ needs and opinions. Lobbyists — whether John Q. Public or one of the thousands of paid activists — have been giving them an earful ever since.
Even in the nation’s earliest days, noted French diplomat and historian Alexis de Toqueville, for example, found that Americans loved to form pressure groups whenever even a few shared a common interest. But leaders like James Madison hoped that with a system that produced many competing interests, no one faction would gain so much control that it would tyrannize the rest. As a result, the term “lobbying” popped up in the United States as early as 1808, OED editor-at-large Jesse Sheidlower told an NPR interviewer.
Even so, most lobbying during the country’s first century took place at the state level because the federal government did not handle as many of the overriding economic issues it does now. But the type of organized lobbying that obviously has you disgusted started to grow during the Ulysses S. Grant administration in the 1870s. Although obviously false, some stories have it that Grant coined the term himself in describing how political advocates would ply him with cigars and brandy in the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Even then, lobbyists were pressing for such things as federal ship-building contracts and for the central government to quell Indian uprisings.
And as Washington, D.C., broadened its powers, lobbying activity grew. But early on, such activity was almost always done in private. There was little public knowledge of it and, unlike today, no mandatory registration, which soon led to “professional” lobbyists being held in low esteem, a reputation that dogs them to this day, deKiefer acknowledges.
In fact, by the turn of the 20th century, political reformers already were blaming lobbyists for corrupting politics. DeKiefer argues that part of this reputation may have been undeserved, produced by the “lurid speculation” of the day’s yellow journalists. Nevertheless, the notion that professional lobbying should be regulated already was beginning to take hold. In 1928, for example, there was criticism of payments by the American Tariff League, in conjunction with the Republican National Committee, to elect Herbert Hoover. The league was rebuked for failing to report its spending and for hiring two “Washington correspondents (i.e., lobbyists).”
Finally, in 1946, Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, which requires lobbyists to disclose what they do, for whom they do it and how much they are paid. The law mandates that such information be given on a regular basis to the clerk of the House of Representatives.
Despite the new rules, Congress authorized a committee in 1953 to investigate “all lobbying activities intended to influence, encourage, promote or retard legislation.” But in a subsequent lawsuit, the Supreme Court even then narrowly defined lobbying as “representations made directly to the Congress.” Indirect efforts to influence Congress by trying to sway public opinion was permissible under the First Amendment, the court ruled.
Since then, stricter regulations have almost always been rejected out of First Amendment concerns. Some, deKiefer argues, might have forced you to register as a lobbyist before even writing a letter to your senator or representative. So while you may criticize their power, you’re always left with the question of how much spending or pressure is too much. As a result, lobbying has continued to explode. In 1975, it is estimated that Washington lobbyists spent less than $100 million. Last year, 11,143 registered lobbyists spent an estimated $3.12 billion, according to extrapolated data from the Senate Office of Public Records.
For detailed information on the lobbying industry, try, for example, www.opensecrets.org/lobby.
What country produces almost all of the world’s supply of saffron?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: After the current version of Sports Illustrated magazine appeared for the first time on Aug. 16, 1954, three women appeared during the first 18 weeks, but these were merely models or other weekend warriors who photographers thought were photogenic. The first cover with true female athletes came Jan. 24, 1955, when gymnasts Doris Hedberg and Maud Karlén were featured. They, along along with 16 other Swedes, were touring the United States, teaching hopeful American girls how to be better gymnasts. Ironically, more women athletes graced SI covers from 1954 to 1965 than from 2000 to 2011, according to a University of Louisville study. Only 18 covers in that latter period — 2.5 percent — featured a woman as the primary or sole image. As of 2011, an average of only one cover a year was devoted to a woman athlete, the study found.