Although lobbying is an ancient art--as
old as government itselfit is still frequently viewed with suspicion. It
is, in fact, a legitimate activity protected by the First Amendment to the
"Congress shall make no law....abridging
the freedom of speech....or the right of the people peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
The term "lobbyist" came into usage early in
the 19th century, although stories of its origin vary. One account describes
"lobby-agents" as the petitioners in the lobby of the New York State Capitol
waiting to address legislators. Another version of the story describes the
lobby of the Willard Hotel as the meeting site for both legislators and
favor-seekers during the early 1800s. Either way, by 1835 the term had been
shortened to "lobbyist" and was in wide usage in the U.S. Capitol, though
The caricature is as familiar as the name:
portly, cigar-smoking men who wine and dine lawmakers while slipping money
into their pockets.
When I went
to work in the Senate, I thought most lobbyists were like Jack Abramoff, but
I was wrong. In those days, none of them were as bad as Abramoff. Some of
them many of them might have been criminals at heart, but they feared
the law too much to break it. That was way, way back when the Democrats had
big majorities in the House and Senate a lifetime ago, my daughter's
lifetime. She's 11.
I was the chief of staff of two Senate committees back then: first,
Environment and Public Works, then Finance.
Environment and Public Works was an odd mix of jurisdictions basically
protecting the environment and building highways, post offices and other
federal buildings. If your company poured concrete or was affected by
environmental regulations, your lobbyists desperately needed to see me.
Lobbyists for the biggest construction companies in the country tried to
talk their way onto my schedule by pretending to be my best buddy. When they
asked for "Larry," my call screeners could tell they didn't know me.
When I moved to the Finance Committee in 1993, every lobbyist in town needed
to see me because Finance had jurisdiction over virtually all of President
Clinton's agenda: taxation, international trade, healthcare, welfare, Social
Security. The corridor outside my office in the Dirksen Building was known
as "Gucci Gulch" because it was constantly patrolled by lobbyists.
My sleaziest encounter with a lobbyist occurred in my Finance Committee
office. One lobbyist, whom I did not know, somehow got 15 minutes on my
schedule to describe the unbearable suffering AIG was being forced to endure
by some corporate tax provision or other that he wanted to get repealed or
amended or some such. I feigned interest, nodded a lot, maybe let a hint of
sympathy into my eyes, and said nothing. If he told his masters that I was
anything other than noncommittal, he was lying.
The next day one of my assistants rushed into the office. She had just
opened an envelope addressed to me, and was shaking as she handed it to me.
It was from AIG's lobbyist a letter thanking me for the meeting and a
check made out to my boss' reelection campaign. I would not even use a sheet
of Senate stationery to reply. Instead, I handwrote a harshly worded version
of "How dare you?" on the lobbyist's letter and sent it back to him with the
There are honorable lobbyists. I dealt with them every day. By honorable
lobbyists I do not mean just the ones who did pro-bono lobbying for
Because the lobbying profession is so little
understood, it is often viewed as a sinister function, yet every "mom and
apple pie" interest in the United States uses lobbyists--a fact little known
by the general public.
Simply put, lobbying is advocacy of a point
of view, either by groups or individuals. A special interest is nothing more
than an identified group expressing a point of view--be it colleges and
universities, churches, charities, public interest or environmental groups,
senior citizens organizations, even state, local or foreign governments.
While most people think of lobbyists only as paid professionals, there are
also many independent, volunteer lobbyists--all of whom are protected by the
same First Amendment.
Lobbying involves much more than persuading
legislators. Its principal elements include researching and analyzing
legislation or regulatory proposals; monitoring and reporting on
developments; attending congressional or regulatory hearings; working with
coalitions interested in the same issues; and then educating not only
government officials but also employees and corporate officers as to the
implications of various changes. What most lay people regard as
lobbying--the actual communication with government officials--represents the
smallest portion of a lobbyist's time; a far greater proportion is devoted
to the other aspects of preparation, information and communication.
When a giant corporation such as Kodak sends its high-priced lobbying team
in to talk to you about how Fuji is violating international trade laws, you
listen because Kodak is the last manufacturer of film left in the United
States and the biggest employer in Rochester, N.Y. Yes, Kodak's lobbyists
are trying to protect corporate profits, but they are also trying to protect
American jobs and save Rochester from becoming a ghost town. Only the most
zealous Marxist could fail to see the honor in that lobbying campaign.
Lobbying is a legitimate and necessary part
of our democratic political process. Government decisions affect both people
and organizations, and information must be provided in order to produce
informed decisions. Public officials cannot make fair and informed decisions
without considering information from a broad range of interested parties.
All sides of an issue must be explored in order to produce equitable
Good lobbyists tell you something you don't know say, why teaching
hospitals need more money for doctor training. They tell you what they think
you should do about it, how to pay for it and, most important, who opposes
it and why. They know their opposition is going to be lobbying you too, so
they don't say anything that can be proved wrong in your next meeting.
There aren't enough congressional staffers to keep track of the hundreds of
thousands of issues under federal jurisdiction. Good government needs good
Unfortunately, in the last 11 years of Republican rule of the House, good
lobbyists have lost much of their turf to bad lobbyists and some criminal
lobbyists. It's all about the money. Republican congressmen, led by Tom
DeLay of Texas, dramatically increased the pressure on lobbyists for
campaign contributions for two reasons: The Republicans had a very small
majority, and they believed they were only doing what the Democrats had been
doing for the 40 years they controlled the House.
But in those 40 years, Democrats never worried about losing the House. They
had huge majorities 149 seats under Tip O'Neill, 83 seats on the day they
lost the majority. Democrats were much less insistent fundraisers than
Republicans are now because they were confident wrongly that they would
never lose the House.
Republicans, having seen their own margin slip to as low as eight seats,
rightly feel that control of the House is up for grabs every two years.
During the 40 years that House Republicans were a powerless group locked out
of every governing decision, they understandably got some crazy ideas about
what was going on behind the Democrats' closed doors.
They weren't imagining me indignantly sending back an improperly delivered
campaign check. They weren't imagining my boss, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan
of New York, deciding to vote against a bill because it would benefit one of
his big contributors and he didn't want anyone raising conflict-of-interest
questions. They probably imagined us shaking the lobbying money tree and
offering legislative quid pro quos like only the party in power can. But
they weren't paying attention.
The worst crook among us at the time turned out to be the masterful
legislator, Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who went to jail for his part in the
House post office scandal. Rosty, a lovable tough guy, was the all-powerful
chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He could make anything happen. All
the big-money special interests in the country hung on his every word about
tax policy. They would have given him the sun, the moon and the stars if he
asked for it.
But he never took a bribe, never got involved in an influence-peddling
scandal. He went to jail for stealing stamps not the kind of thing you
have to do when you're on the take. Rosty's days in power seem like an age
of innocence compared to the age of Abramoff.