Nobody Likes Lobbyists, but They've Been Around As Long As the Government Has

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Earlier this week the Sun-Times and Better Government Association revealed that cash-strapped area governments spent more than $7 million on lobbying in 2009, with much of the work going to former elected officials and long-term insiders.

The piece raises important questions about whether lobbying fees are really the best use of taxpayer money—and whether this sort of lobbying is just another way connected firms and individuals feed at the public trough.

But it also served as the latest example of another phenomenon: when lobbyists are mentioned in a news story, an election campaign, or even in casual conversation, it’s almost never because of anything good. Thanks to those who engage in backroom dealing—and the criminal antics of people like Jack Abramoff—lobbyists are widely written off as professional influence-peddlers and con artists who happen to work in the corridors of power instead of dimly lit pool halls. President Obama, for example, has declared that his administration is committed to “reining in the influence of lobbyists in Washington” and “shutting down the ‘revolving door’ that carries special interest influence in and out of the government.”

Of course, members of Obama's administration have met with lobbyists over things like health care reform, and lots of government officials count on lobbyists to help them stay abreast of issues. There are thousands of lobbyists around the country advocating for education reform, environmental regulation, and gun control—and others who work in opposition to these things. Relatively few of them are buying anybody off.

Nor is their trade a new innovation. Various ways of appealing to and pressuring the government have been around since before the pharaohs ruled over Egypt. “And here in the U.S., lobbying is as old as the federal government,” says Kathy Jacob, an historian and curator of manuscripts at Harvard University's Schlesinger Library.

KATHY JACOB
  • KATHY JACOB

In her most recent book, King of the Lobby, Jacob tells the story of Sam Ward, the scholarly scion of a wealthy family who became the most popular and best connected lobbyist in Washington in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when the nation's attention turned from the Civil War to making money. Ward was a master at wining, dining, and charming people into helping his clients, who included railroad companies, mining interests, steamship lines, and the president of Paraguay. But Jacob writes that there’s no evidence Ward ever engaged in outright bribery, unlike many of his peers.

And Ward himself recoiled at the suggestion that he was involved in something underhanded. “Everybody who knows anything about Washington knows that ten times, nay, fifty times, more measures are lost than are carried; but once in a while a pleasant little windfall of this kind recompenses us, who are always toiling here, for the disappointments of the session,” Jacob quotes him as testifying during a congressional hearing in 1875. “I am not at all ashamed—I do not say I am proud, but I am not at all ashamed—of the occupation. It is a very useful one.”

I recently spoke with Jacob about Sam Ward and what his story says about the ongoing practice of lobbying.

How did you come upon this character Sam Ward?

The other two books I’ve written have been about Washington, D.C., and the years after the Civil War, and Sam Ward’s name kept popping up in letters from that time. Everyone who’d attended a dinner at Sam’s seemed to write home about it. One called it “the climax of civilization” and another referred to “ambrosial nights.”

You seem to like the guy—while he’s a charmer and not always so responsible in his personal life, he doesn’t appear to have been paying anyone off, which was standard practice in those days.

I guess from what I knew of him already I wasn’t surprised to find he was different from all the rest. He was the first person to use social lobbying as effectively as he did. I wasn’t surprised by how sordid this period was—it was one scandal after another. It’s just a period of such uncertainty and no one’s quite sure of where the ground is under their feet. So much is happening and the government just can’t keep up, and in many ways lobbying performs a very valuable service in making sure things get done—though not always in the nation’s best interest.

Some of these people are just so colorful, like Samuel Colt, who handed out pistols to members of Congress [as a lobbying technique]. He would have these dinners with fine wine and food where he’d give the women Parisian gloves to say something good about Colt. He even had members of Congress lobbying for him.

You discovered an extensive paper trail showing how the business worked in those days.

The main way I pieced together Sam’s life was from the letters and collections of others, like [wealthy businessman and New York Democrat] Sam Barlow. He made money from all different things—banking, a cable company, railroads. But he is Sam’s main client, and sometimes they sent notes back and forth a couple times a day, so there are hundreds of these letters. And because [Barlow] was a wealthy man, he had a staff and there are carbon copies of the letters he sent to Sam. They’re very candid about the business of lobbying—“Who do you want to have at the table?” “I think we ought to have so and so.”

Another collection that’s just wonderful is the Garfield diaries—President James Garfield. He and Sam were both scholars and Horace fans. Sam was never without Horace, he could spout Horace quotes all the time, and so could Garfield. Garfield knows what Sam is up to [as a lobbyist], but he’s lonely—[his wife] Lucretia is back in Ohio, so he goes to these dinners at Sam’s, sometimes two or three times a week. And he writes all about who’s there, every single time. And you can see what legislation is up at a particular time and see who was there and it’s fascinating.

Did your view of lobbying change as you put the book together?

I did come away from this with a respect for the potential for lobbying. There are paid lobbyists arguing for human rights, women’s rights, and civil rights. There are paid lobbyists advocating for clean water. There are all sorts of lobbyists.

And I didn’t realize how long people had been lobbying. It’s older than the United States, but here in the U.S. lobbying is as old as the federal government—and I mean paid lobbyists. Merchants were sending paid lobbyists to Washington early in the 19th century.

Sam Ward didn’t hand out bribes himself but did give out gifts and favors, and it’s clear people still do cross the line from lobbying into favor-trading. So what should we take from his story?

I think one thing you can take from this is that the more lobbying is done in secret, the more pernicious it is. The greater the transparency, the more aboveboard lobbying can be.

Sam would have been so upset at how dinners and good conversation can be viewed as a dangerous thing, but we know that it can be. We know that lobbyists have used wine and food to good effect.

But I came away from this realizing there is a place for lobbying—it’s guaranteed in the Constitution, and we have a right to make a case for ourselves. I know how busy members of Congress are, and they have more to follow and do, so they have to rely on lobbyists. So I don’t think lobbying is going away, I don’t think it should go away, but I think it should be transparent.

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