First of all, “what is lobbying?” you might ask. Lobbying can be defined as “the communication of data or opinion by someone other than a citizen acting on his or her own behalf to a governmental decision maker in an effort to influence a specific decision.” In other words, a lobbyist is someone who tries to gain political influence on the behalf of someone else. This practice is called lobbying. For as long as there have been politicians making laws, there have been people trying to influence them, and to facilitate this, as a sort of middleman, the profession of lobbyists has emerged. The name lobbying comes from the word lobby, meaning an entrance hall or foyer, and it was in these lobbies that the legislators would meet the public.
The history of lobbying in the US can be traced back to the beginning of the young republic’s history. James Madison, one of authors of the Constitution and the fourth President of the United States, described and warned about the roles of outside interests. Madison did not refer to these interests as interest groups or lobbyists; instead, he talked about “factions” and the dangers of these. He perceived factions as a threat to the democracy as they could disrupt the political process in a democratic system, and he feared that anarchy and tyranny by the strongest factions could occur. Initially, Madison identified two ways of removing the problems of these factions. The first was to remove the people’s right to free speech and free assembly and the second was to control the factions. Yet, since Madison and his fellow founders wanted to create a free and democratic nation, both of these solutions were unacceptable, since they both conflicted with the freedom of the people. Instead, a republic was formed, in part to help control the effects of factions or interest groups, yet the rights of the people were secured in the Bill of Rights. This way, elected representatives in a representative government would embody and express the people’s interests. Thereby, diminishing the effects and necessity of factions, since, at least in theory, everyone’s interest would be represented while everyone’s rights would still be protected.
However, the new republic would still be corrupted by outside interests. This was most rampant during the “Gilded Age,” a term coined by the American writer Mark Twain. It covers the period from around 1870-1900 in the US and is used to describe the corruption in American politics, among other things, during that time. In the late 1800s, factions or interest groups consisting of, primarily, business leaders were often successful in bribing Members of Congress to not pass regulation that would hurt their businesses. Eventually, legislation was passed to ban direct quid pro quo transactions between outside interests and members and affiliates of the US government. This seemed to stop the corruption, however, interest groups’ rights were still protected by the Bill of Rights, thus, the right to petition or lobby the government was protected by the First Amendment.
Although, lobbying continued in the 20th century, a part from the occasional small corruption scandal, outside interests lobbied the legislators in a less corrupted fashion, through small donations and campaign contributions. However, during the 1970s, lobbyists and their companies started to grow into the huge business it is today. From this decade and the decades that followed, the cost for campaigning sky-rocketed due to the cost of mainly TV ads and polls. On the one side, this meant that politicians needed more money to get (re-)elected and on the other side plenty of interest groups were happy to supply this money, in exchange for some influence. However, this was not a throwback to the Gilded Age and its direct quid pro quo corruption. In its place, a dependency on outside interests’ money (“soft money”) grew. Interest groups could get their opinions heard and gain influence with the candidates they supported, who in turn would receive contributions, which was needed to spend on the increasingly expensive election campaigns. To facilitate and utilize this growing market, lobbyists emerged and created lobbying firms on K Street in Washington. For a retainer fee, interest groups, universities, private companies, e.g. could hire lobbyists to gain influence on legislation that would affect their interests and in certain cases, it would also involve donations at political fundraisers and other campaign contributions. This was all legal, of course.
However, in the beginning of the 21st century the biggest lobbying scandal in modern times occurred. Jack Abramoff (featured in the photo), a lobbyist working for lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig, was sentenced to six years in prison for conspiring to bribe public officials, as well as tax evasion and mail fraud. He swindled his Indian tribe casino clients and bribed Members of Congress, including parts of their staffs. Furthermore, Abramoff succeeded in getting a Committee Chairman in Congress to put a specific line of legislation into a bill, which would then exempt one of his clients for certain tax obligations. As the investigation showed, this was an example of the quid pro quo corruption that had seemed almost extinct the Abramoff case. The Abramoff scandal, which put Jack Abramoff in prison in 2006, shocked the American public, who had not experienced a corruption scandal of this magnitude in modern times. Yet, what was perhaps the most worrying aspect was that Abramoff’s methods, although extreme in scale, was not that uncommon compared to how most lobbyists work on a regular basis…
- Hrebenar, R. J. & Morgan, B. B. (2009). Lobbying in America: A Reference Handbook. The United States: ABC-CLIO.
- Kaiser, R. G. (2010). So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. The United States: Vintage Books.
- Lessig, L. (2011). Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It. New York, the United States of America: Hachette Book Group.
- Nash, G. B., Jeffrey, J. R., Howe, J. R., Winkler, A. M., Davis, A. F., Mires, C., Frederick, P. J. & Pestana, C. G. (2008). The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society, Sixth Edition. The United States: Pearson Education, Inc.
(Photo and picture credit: Wikimedia)