Skip to main content



July 2024
25min read

Lobbies have traditionally held a central place in the demonology of American politics, and to some extent their reputation for corruption and shady dealing is richly deserved. But it is also true that they represent an important constitutional right and, properly used, can be an effective force for good in the legislative process.

The image of the lobbies as a threat to good government is too firmly fixed in the popular imagination to be easily dispelled. Even if we discount much of that unsavory reputation as the product of a distant past, it is still difficult to avoid the notion that any organized effort to influence legislation is both insidious and inimical to the public interest.

But the fact is that lobbies are intrinsically neither good nor bad, and a strong case can be made that we would be distinctly poorer if they did not exist. Wherever one finds them, whether in France or Great Britain, in Scandinavia or the United States, they lie near the heart of the political process in every free state and, when placed under adequate controls, may well reflect the essence of representative democracy.

Certainly the Founding Fathers so believed, for they considered easy access to the institutions of government by all elements within the state to be a prime necessity and the hallmark of a free people. To make such access possible they provided in the First Amendment to the Constitution three specific rights—speech, association, and petition—that have protected lobbies ever since. Political pragmatists of the first order, they had no doubt that special-interest groups would seek to influence the future course of Congress and the state assemblies, if only because a national consensus would always prove elusive and because no free society could hope to achieve uniformity of interest among all its citizens.

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it,” James Madison wrote in The Federalist (No. 10), “different opinions will be formed”—on religion, on political theory and practice, and above all else on the uses and distribution of property. The inevitable result is the division of every society into factions: “a landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a monied interest, with many lesser interests … actuated by different sentiments and views.”

As Madison saw it, “the regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern Legislation. …” But like others in his generation, he felt that the constitutional system of checks and balances was sufficient to guard the public against abuses and to ensure that lawmaking would proceed in a disinterested, evenhanded way. There seemed no need for additional restraints.

What Madison and his colleagues could not anticipate was the phenomenal growth of government at, all levels in the twentieth century and the markedly more complex society it would serve. In the eighteenth century, when agents for the special interests were few in number and their methods were informal and direct, it was impossible to foresee the highly organized, heavily financed professional lobbies of our day, or even to conceive of the enormous power they would one day wield. But even a handful of statistics will show that special-interest groups and lobbies are now a dominant feature in American life:

  • •There are currently more than 12,000 national organizations, any one of which is a potential lobby at some level of government. Roughly 2,900 are trade, business, or commercial associations; 1,016 are medical or health societies; more than 800 are concerned with education; 700 others are organized for religious purposes. They run across the alphabet from the Abrasive Grain Association to the Zionist Organization of America. They embrace the Boy Scouts of America, the Little League, and Zero Population Growth. They represent a sharp increase in number from the approximately 500 in 1929, 4,000 in 1949, and 7,400 in 1961.
  • •In addition there are countless thousands of local and state organizations, some permanent and others shortlived. Many of them are affiliates of national groups, but a substantial number are independent or regional in character. A recent estimate lists nearly 100,000 labor-union locals, 150,000 women’s organizations, and some 30,000 civic associations in this category, but any tally is at best a guess.
  • •Since 1946 more than 12,000 separate lobbies or individual lobbyists have registered with Congress. Because of loopholes in the law (major corporations, for example, are not necessarily required to register) and because annual registration is not mandatory, it is impossible to determine the exact number of persons or groups seeking to influence federal legislation at the present time. No registration figures have ever been compiled for state or local lobbyists, although the bulk of lobbying efforts probably take place at those levels.
  • • According to figures supplied by the Congressional Quarterly Service, a private research organization based in Washington, lobbies have reported spending more than $148.9 million since 1946 on the federal level. (This total does not include funds used in political campaigns or other expenditures not required by law to be listed with Congress.)
  • •In the last full year for which figures are available (1973), the Congressional Quarterly reports that lobbies spent more than $9.4 million in Washington. This is the largest annual total since 1949, when $10.3 million was reported, and is double the 1967 figure of $4.7 million. Large as it may seem, the total, Congressional Quarterly Service cautions, “represents only a fraction of the actual spending by groups. …” The language of the federal lobbying law is so vague that some lobbies need file only a portion of their expenses, and “many organizations … avoid filing reports altogether,” although they maintain large liaison staffs in Washington. The reason: lobbying is not the corporation’s principal purpose, and thus the registration law does not apply.
  • •A breakdown by lobbying categories of the reported expenditures in 1973, again according to the Congressional Quarterly, shows The largest single spender was Common Cause—the selfstyled “citizens’lobby”—at $934,835. Second was the United Auto Workers with $460,992.
  • •Since 1938 more than 400 individuals, law firms, and public-relations agencies have registered with the Justice Department as agents of foreign governments in the United States—principally on trade and tariff matters but, in effect, for any lawful service their clients may require. The current number of such agents is not available, according to the Congressional Quarterly Service, because the department no longer provides lists of registrants to the public and no longer reports the funds spent by such agents on lobbying.

Here then are Madison’s “contending interests and local jealousies” as a major force in the legislative process of the United States. One estimate, for example, suggests that there are at least twenty active lobbyists for every member of Congress in Washington at the present time. What they seek to provide is professionalism, organization, and expertise in lawmaking to the special benefit of the interests they represent.

But contrary to the popular stereotype—reflected in such derogatory labels as “five-percenter,” “influence peddler,” and the nineteenth-century term “boodler”—the contemporary lobbyists are generally not shadowy figures oiling the legislative machinery with bribes of money, liquor, and sex. (There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but the risks and penalties of exposure are considerably greater now than they were a century ago, when such practices were widespread.) In recent years, for example, a number of distinguished public figures (or their law firms) have registered as lobbyists, including Dean Acheson, Thomas Dewey, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., Abe Portas, Arthur J. Goldberg, George Romney, and Richard Nixon. In 1947 Sam Ervin served for one day as a registered lobbyist—without compensation—on behalf of a southern railroad. And over the past twenty-eight years more than seventy members of the House and about twenty senators have turned to lobbying once their terms in Congress have expired.

This is not to suggest that evils do not lurk in current lobbying practices; it is merely to point out that they have an element of polish or sophistication that was not there in the past. Like modern business, the lobbies have learned a great deal from modern advertising and public-relations techniques. No longer merely manipulators of patronage and wire-pullers as lobbyists have always been, they are now propagandists, attempting often to win the support not only of legislators but of the public as well.

Most commonly they direct their efforts at the federal level to three elements of the government: to Congress and especially its committees, where perhaps 90 per cent of all laws are formulated; to the executive departments; and to the regulatory agencies. They rely, as lobbyists always have, on personal influence arising from familiarity with the lawmakers, so entertainment still produces a major expense. But more often they supply Congress with detailed information on pending legislation, going so far as to produce drafts of bills that members of Congress may incorporate in whole or in part in measures submitted to the House and Senate. They offer testimony in committee, and they monitor the work of government on a day-to-day basis. They marshal support from their constituents—the National Rifle Association, for example, has been known to produce five hundred thousand letters from its membership in seventy-two hours—and they get out the vote. In their most controversial role they supply campaign funds and campaign workers on behalf of candidates favorable to their position. They work alone or form shifting and temporary alliances with other lobbies—as in 1946 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Veterans, and the National Farmers Union joined dozens of other disparate groups in support of the employment act of that year.

The result is clear: virtually no major piece of legislation has passed through Congress or the state assemblies in this century without some lobby having had a hand in the process. For better or for worse, lobbies are an extraordinarily complex feature of our government, with a history as old as the Republic itself.

Although the word “lobbying” and its derivatives did not enter American usage until the early part of the nineteenth century, the practice had long been part of the American political experience. It is probably as old as government itself. Writing more than twenty-three hundred years ago, Plato, for example, denounced the “fawning speeches and witcheries of supplication” that certain men employed to influence the Athenian senate and proposed that any officials who took bribes should be put to death “without ceremony” for their violation of the public trust. Despite such abuses, however, Plato considered open access to the ruling powers a requisite for good government and urged that the guardians of the state always “give prompt audience to all comers. …”

By the time of the first English settlements in the New World that principle was already well established at Westminster and the royal court. Paid agents for various interests were commonplace, their appearances before Parliament and the king protected, after a fashion, by the right of petition. That ancient prerogative of the English people had come into existence long before the Norman invasion of 1066. It had been given feeble sanction in the Magna Carta and then took on new meaning in the civil wars of the seventeenth century as one of the cherished liberties of Englishmen everywhere.

The right had been granted in every colonial charter, beginning with the Virginia Company in 1609; and throughout the long history of English rule the colonists made certain that their agents, operating in London, pressed their case before Parliament, the king, the board of trade, and the host of government bureaus empowered to enforce British colonial policies. Never official members of the sprawling colonial bureaucracy, the agents were nonetheless what one historian calls “an indispensable link between the mother country and her far-flung empire.” They provided a ready and much needed competence in colonial affairs at a time when conditions in America were only vaguely understood in London. If most of the agents were native-born Englishmen who sold their services to the highest bidder—and often represented several colonies at once—when the occasion warranted, such distinguished persons as John Winthrop, Jr. (the son of the Massachusetts governor in the 1630’s), Roger Williams, and William Penn went directly to England to seek in person some special benefit for their colonies or to protest some planned change that might adversely affect their lives. And, of course, a considerable part of Benjamin Franklin’s renown was based on his work as a colonial agent in England in the years before the American Revolution.

Once the struggle with Great Britain began in earnest, the colonists immediately applied pressure to Parliament and the Crown through the increased activity of their London-based agents and through a virtual blizzard of petitions and other legal memoranda, like the Declaration and Protest of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. Lobbying was no less in evidence at the Continental Congress in 1775, especially in the first days following the battles of Lexington and Concord, when the future course of the nation was still unclear. As John Adams and the rest of the New England delegation rode into New York on their way to Philadelphia they were met on the outskirts of the city, Adams noted in his autobiography, “by a great Number of Gentlemen in Carriages and on horseback, and all the Way their Numbers increased.” At Philadelphia the delegates were in constant demand at dinner parties and evening receptions, not only because of their celebrity value, but also because amid the food and drink the leaders of the city could press their arguments for and against the American cause.

In order to prevent just that kind of interference in the drafting of the Constitution the delegates to Philadelphia in 1787 did what the Continental Congress had rarely done: they closed their meetings to outsiders and conducted all their sessions in secret. But once the document had been drafted and sent out to the states for ratification, the Founding Fathers took to lobbying for its passage with a zeal seldom equalled in the history of the nation. In pamphlets and broadsides, in private letters and in person, or—as in the case of Alexander Hamilton in New York and others elsewhere—in appearances on the floor of the state conventions, the proponents of the Constitution and the anti-Federalists opposed to it wheedled, cajoled and argued, pushed personal relationships to the limit, and used every tactic short of bribery that lobbyists have customarily employed. Whatever else it may be, The Federalist Papers remains a classic in lobbying literature, remarkably similar in intent to the full-page newspaper ads or four-color brochures that special-interest groups now circulate to enlist the public’s support for their cause.

Given such long involvement with successful lobbying, which had produced a revolution, secured independence, and won a constitution, it is no wonder that the early leaders of the nation fully expected the practice to continue. Nor is it surprising that they did not take steps to minimize its more destructive aspects.

Two things in particular gave them confidence that the lobbies were already adequately controlled. The first was the simple fact that no one expected the national government to play an especially powerful role in the nation’s affairs. The country’s economic interests were predominantly agricultural. Except for the distribution of public lands and the development of a banking-mercantile policy the federal government had few services or perquisites to offer. Whatever special privileges or relief interest groups might want would more likely be sought at the state, rather than the national, level.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the two theories of representative government that prevailed at the time the Constitution took effect seemed to provide built-in checks against the manipulation of the entire legislature by any lobbies that might appear and assurances that the majority interest would nearly always be served.

For the first quarter century of its existence Congress embraced the so-called trustee concept that had dominated English parliamentary thought through the Revolutionary War. As Madison described it in The Federalist (Nos. 56 and 57), the principal function of the national government was to effect a union of interests among otherwise competing states and, as far as possible, to establish a uniformity of law. This could best be accomplished, he argued, by representatives who were experts on “local circumstances” but who nonetheless remained free to balance national goals against local needs. In short, members of Congress, under this concept, were trustees for the nation as a whole, not mere agents for one constituent part.

The concept was put to the test early in the First Congress when the House considered a constitutional amendment that would have permitted constituents to bind their representatives to written instructions from the majority in the home districts. The measure was decisively defeated by a vote of 41 to 10.

By 1820, however, as a result of rising sectionalism precipitated by the emergence of industry in the Northeast and the appearance of Jacksonian democracy everywhere, Congress reverted to the agent concept of representation. As this theory had been understood in eighteenth-century America, all delegates to a legislative assembly were merely agents of the electorate and strictly bound to obey its wishes. Thus in Massachusetts, for example, the town meetings regularly forwarded voluminous and explicit instructions, or memorials, to their delegates in the state’s General Court, spelling out in detail what the majority of the towns expected from any legislative session and in most instances directing the delegates to vote in a particular way. Now the principle was carried over into Congress, and until the Civil War it was not uncommon for the state assemblies to send instructions to their congressional delegations in Washington to see that the states’ interests were protected. This was especially true in the Senate, whose members, after all, were then chosen by the state legislatures and not by popular vote.

But whether the trustee theory or the agent concept dominated mattered little to the lobbyists. Not deterred in the slightest by the federal government’s limited powers, they set out as soon as the Constitution took effect to secure what there was for the taking.


For the first seventy-five years of the Republic the lobbies operated in the familiar low-keyed style of the past. Because of the simplicity of government operations everywhere a kind of “old-boy network” developed whereby patronage and influence depended heavily on family connections and familiarity and less on party affiliations. What characterizes the period is an absence of national lobbies.

As Madison had correctly surmised in The Federalist Papers , the principal focus of the federal government was on three areas: commerce (including money and banking), taxation (that is, a tariff program), and the militia (essentially military pensions), to which a fourth—the vacant lands to the west—was soon added. As a consequence most lobbying activity centered on gains or benefits to individuals or to small, regionally based groups engaged in land speculation or trade. The effect of special legislation on behalf of such persons was not widely felt, and only the most blatant acts of corruption—the open sale of government positions, for example—brought censure or prosecution.

On the whole, lobbying during this period was informal, direct, and personal; for paid agents it was something of a free-lancer’s art; in all instances it was controlled by the ethics of the individuals involved rather than by legislation. Some highlights:

THE YAZOO LAND FRAUDS were the most notorious of all the early lobby schemes, and although initially not directly connected to the federal government, in time they provided the basis for one of John Marshall’s most important decisions in the Supreme Court.

A complicated enterprise involving no fewer than seven land companies over a twenty-year period, the Yazoo case concerned the sale of some thirty-five million acres of land by the Georgia legislature in 1789 and again in 1795. The huge tract—now the states of Alabama and Mississippi- lay deep within Indian territory controlled by the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes, and lapped over into Spanish claims along the West Florida border. Despite the obvious title problems any sale was certain to produce, speculators were willing to run the risk.

The initial sale of 1789 fell apart under the weight of poor financing and an accumulation of legal complications. But before long a second group of companies, more effectively organized and more determined than the first, descended on the Georgia legislature, prepared to do whatever was necessary to succeed. Among their number were two United States senators, two representatives, and a justice of the Supreme Court, none of whom saw any conflict of interest in their open participation in what proved to be one of the most flagrantly corrupt land sales in the nation’s history.

After several weeks of feverish activity the legislature readily accepted the lobbyists’ bid and sold the entire tract for the bargain price—even then—of $500,000 in specie. It was no secret that all but one of the Georgians voting in favor of the deal had been bribed, either with shares in the land companies or with cash payments amounting to $ 1,000 and more, and within a year the enraged voters in the state elected a reform legislature, which set about to undo what its predecessor had done. Citing the rampant corruption of the sale as reason enough, the reformers immediately voided the deal.

The matter would have ended there had the lobbyists not been so well organized and well financed, but instead the case dragged on for years in Congress and the courts, kept alive by the New England Mississippi Land Company and its agents. At long last it reached the Supreme Court in the case of Fletcher v. Peck (1810). Speaking for the majority and in the process establishing the court’s right to review state legislation, John Marshall upheld the original land sale on the ground that the reform legislature had violated Article One, Section Ten of the Constitution, which prohibits states from “impairing the Obligation of Contracts.”

Ironically, all parties to the case emerged victorious. The lobbyists had their land to sell at a profit to the state of Georgia, which in turn sold it at a profit to the United States, which in turn sold it at many times the purchase price over the next twenty-five years. By conservative estimate the lobbyists earned $3.5 million for their efforts.

THE SOCIETY FOR THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF USEFUL MANUFACTURES was the brain child of Alexander Hamilton and, at least in its initial stages, the first successful corporate lobby in the United States. Capitalized in 1791 at a million dollars—which was greater than the total assets of all the manufacturing concerns in the country- the society hoped to create a flourishing industrial community on the banks of the Passaic River in New Jersey. The Secretary of the Treasury was already establishing a reputation as the most vigorous arm-twister in Congress—and, rumor had it, the most liberal dispenser of bribes as well- in his efforts to secure passage of his economic programs, so it was not surprising that he journeyed to the state capital at Trenton to plead in person for the land grant and other perquisites the society required. Since several key legislators had conveniently been given shares in the corporation and the governor, William Paterson, had taken it upon himself to steer the proposed legislation through the assembly—the new town was named Paterson as a gesture of thanks—Hamilton and his colleagues had little or no difficulty in obtaining a perpetual monopoly, certain tax exemptions, and control of the Great Falls of the Passaic as a source of power. Masterful as the lobbying effort had been, however, fulfillment failed to follow promise, and within four years the corporation abandoned its project under the weight of heavy financial losses.

JACKSON’S VETO OF THE NATIONAL BANK and the Jacksonian period generally mark the coming of age of nineteenth-century lobbying efforts at the federal level. The bribery, the corruption, the manipulation of the press, and other methods characteristic of the time were not new, of course. Lobbies had made their appearance as soon as the First Congress took up consideration of the Tariff of 1789, but in the 1830’s attempts to influence legislation became more open and systematic as a direct result of many circumstances: the increased government activity brought on by the election of Jackson, a tide of rising expectations that accompanied the extension of the franchise, the growing sectionalism implicit in the tariff controversy of 1828, and the subsequent nullification movement in South Carolina that threatened to split the Union. But all of these pale in comparison to the President’s refusal to recharter the national bank.

A conservative institution, the bank since 1816 had unquestionably aided business and curbed inflation, but it had also led to a sharp contraction of the money supply—to the extreme distress of debtor groups in the South and West- because of its stringent credit policies toward state and local banks. Despite Marshall’s ruling in its favor in 1817, its constitutionality continued to trouble States’ righters. In addition certain business groups were unhappy with the bank’s manager, Nicholas Biddle. If this was not enough, there were also questions about the bank’s monopoly status, its preferential treatment of corporations, and its general effect on the nation’s welfare.

Once it became clear that Jackson would veto any effort to recharter the bank, lobbyists descended on Washington in droves. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has described it, “Memorials, petitions, letters, delegations and protests of every kind deluged Congress.” Congressmen were offered bribes for their votes. Daniel Webster, one of the leading supporters of recharter, was in any case already on the bank’s payroll as legal counsel. Journalists were hired to write attacks on Biddle or to defend him, in either case passing off their stories as regular news.

Early in February, 1832, the House began its deliberations, and in the ensuing weeks pressure mounted. For the pro-bank faction it was a wasted effort. The Senate passed the measure in June, the House in early July. But on July 10 Jackson cast his veto, and three days later it was sustained.

THE BUCHANAN ADMINISTRATION earned the distinction of being the most corrupt of any in the ante-bellum period—although James Buchanan himself has generally been exonerated of any personal involvement beyond his incompetence as the chief administrative officer of the government. The focal point of lobbying activity was a notorious gambling den known formally as Pendleton’s Palace of Fortune, though its denizens preferred to call it the Hall of the Bleeding Heart. As one contemporary journalist reported, “in its palmiest days, [it] might have been called the vestibule of the lobby.”

It was run by Edward Pendleton, a member of one of Virginia’s oldest families, a bon vivant , the possessor of an incomparable wine cellar and what was reputed to be the best-laid table in all of Washington, and coincidentally one of the most active lobbyists of his day. Every night official Washington gathered behind the doors of his establishment to eat, drink, and exchange the latest gossip before retiring to an inner room where poker games and other gambling diversions took place until dawn. Money was never a problem; Pendleton and any of a dozen lobbyists who frequented the place were willing to make loans to any hard-pressed congressman who found the cards or dice running against him. The price of such largesse was understood by all concerned. As one historian of the period has written, “An unfortunate member might see a stack of lou’s disappear in the flames if he voted right.”

Blackmail extended from other entertainments as well. Washington was by all accounts a dreary place, muddy in spring, dusty in summer, aswarm with flies and malariabearing mosquitoes, and, according to the New York Herald , a city not safe for pedestrians after dark. Not unexpectedly the lobbyists made every effort to afford the members of Congress some relief with paid—if clandestine —visits to the infamous houses in the side alleys off the Capitol, where, according to the Herald , the “madames and their chicks” awaited.

For most lobbyists, however, the conventional weapons of open bribery with money and gifts were all that was required to smooth the way for the host of legislative proposals that followed the Panic of 1857, when special-interest groups pressed for economic relief through land-appropriation schemes, railroad and steamship projects, and a homestead act that would open up the western lands to the unemployed.

The techniques were depressingly familiar and followed the pattern that a congressional committee, headed by James Letchner of Virginia, had uncovered in 1855 in an investigation of pressures brought by Samuel Colt, Cyrus McCormick, and others to prevent a change in the patentextension act. They were unsuccessful but only after exhausting every effort. McCormick, for example, had hired a number of journalists to write letters to Congress and to plant news stories favorable to him in the daily press. Colt went further; he passed out dozens of specially produced revolvers in the House and Senate, “enticed” at least one representative with a “loan” of ten thousand dollars, and hired three comely ladies known as the Spiritualists to spend their evenings “moving with the members” of the House. Asked about this last maneuver during the Letchner hearings, a witness replied that spiritualism was widely practiced in the city, but she could not say with certainty that one of Colt’s ladies possessed any spiritual powers. “I think,” the witness testified, “she was more material.”


Despite the clear evidence that lobbying might well be out of control, the Letchner Committee—and subsequent investigators in the aftermath of the Civil War—made no solid recommendations to Congress for controlling the practice. Indeed, for the next thirty years blatant corruption was taken to be a concomitant of the legislative process, leading one historian to label the period “the Big Barbeque.” The Homestead Act, the Morrill Act establishing land-grant colleges, the appropriation of lands for the transcontinental railroad network, the emerging corporations’ need for tariff protection, the Reconstruction program in the South, and, at the end of the century, the territorial expansion of the nation overseas presented the lobbyists with a host of new opportunities for their old methods.

But nothing was to have a greater effect than the growth of American industry, which almost overnight produced a national market and a new power elite of corporation owners whose private fortunes were staggering in size. In the scramble for wealth and political power that marked this “age of enterprise,” the government was seen as the chief dispenser of special privilege to those who could get to Washington first with the most. The impulse was, of course, no different from that of earlier lobbyists, but the stakes were considerably higher: millions of dollars at first and then billions were at issue.

For the moment the lobbies directed their attention to familiar objects: the acquisition of land for railroads, or special legislation favorable to banking and financial interests, and the tariff. Two things, however, really set the period apart. Before the Civil War lobbyists had acted for individual entrepreneurs like Samuel Colt or Cyrus McCormick; now in the last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century they worked in behalf of monopolistic or nearmonopolistic national corporations through carefully organized, centrally directed campaigns for “the oil interests,” or “the tobacco cartel,” or “the steel interests,” and others.

Secondly, they exercised their power in such a fashion as to make the ante-bellum bribery and corruption seem like mere preliminaries, if only because the amounts of money used in the 1870’s and 1880’s were so large and the schemes for cornering the stock market or controlling huge tracts of land were so bold as to be breathtaking. Scandals such as Black Friday in September, 1869, when Jay Gould and “Jubilee Jim” Fisk attempted to gain control of the nation’s gold, and the Crédit Mobilier affair of 1872, involving the attempt to bribe members of Congress and the Grant administration with stock certificates of the Union Pacific Railway, were only the harbingers of two decades of widespread lobbying abuses.

The possibility for such excesses was considerably enhanced by a shift in the concept of representation that began just before the turn of the century and that has remained with us since. The transformation of the American economy was accompanied by a corresponding alteration of the society at large and by a proliferation of the number of special-interest groups in almost every area of American life. Where in the past a member of Congress had only to measure the dominant interest of his district or state against the interests of other districts or the nation a a whole, after 1900 it became increasingly difficult to know what that dominant interest was. In the complexity of twentieth-century America the congressman was now forced to sort out the competing factions among the people he represented before he could hope to act. As a result members of Congress came to see themselves—in political scientist Robert Getz’s term—as brokers, rather than as mere agents or trustees, mediating among the several interests within their own localities. If they were now free to act on the basis of their own judgment to an extent unknown in the past, they were now also susceptible to greater lobbying influence than they had been before.

The lobbies themselves had similarly undergone change as America entered the twentieth century. The most significant developments were two: the emergence of national associations seeking to influence legislation and—particularly after 1915—the appearance of the professional staffs in place of the free-lance lobbyists of earlier years.

There had been sporadic attempts before the Civil War to organize national-interest groups, most notably in the cause of abolitionism and reform; but in general the limited power of the federal government and the regional or sectional character of American life had discouraged most efforts. By 1900 national organization seemed the preferred way, and through the next thirty years the trend accelerated because of the demonstrated success of such powerful lobbies as the American Federation of Labor (founded in 1886), the National Association of Manufacturers (1895), the American Medical Association (1901), and the United States Chamber of Commerce (1912). Two cases in particular served as proof of the advantages to be gained from group action:

THE GRANGERS , or the Patrons of Husbandry, had originally banded together in the midwestern farm belt just after the Civil War for social and educational purposes, but almost immediately they recognized the political potential of their association and by 1871 had successfully lobbied the Illinois assembly into creating a state commission to regulate railroad and warehousing rates. Within three years the states of Iowa and Wisconsin followed suit. Buoyed by a favorable ruling of the Supreme Court in 1877, which held that the Granger laws were constitutional because private property devoted to public use should be subject to public control, the Grangers lobbied actively for a national railroad law to curb the power of the rail monopolies. The result was the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the beginning of the federal government’s efforts to regulate big business.

PROHIBITION, as provided for in the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act of 1919, brought to a close one of the most successful lobbying movements in the nation’s history. Its origins lay in the reform movements of the Jacksonian period and the formation of the United States Temperance Union. Tied very closely to fundamentalist religious groups in the South and Midwest, the temperance lobbies had succeeded in temporarily drying up twenty states by 1861, but postwar legislatures undid much of the work in all but a handful of states. Undaunted, the temperance forces gained momentum with the establishment of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874 and the Anti-Saloon League in 1896. By the turn of the century there was a nationwide network of loose alliances, including a number of political groups, that moved forward on many fronts: distributing literature, working actively with church groups at the state and local level, staging marches and public rallies, and, above all else, bombarding Congress with demands that a national law be passed. The turning point came in 1917, with the entrance of America into World War i. Pointing to the seventeen states that were again dry and drawing heavily on the anti-German sentiment already visible in other ways (the banning of German-language texts in the schools, for example), the temperance lobbies made their final pitch. They pointed to the preponderance of German-Americans in the brewing industry and suggested that prohibition was patriotic at the core, and they argued that it would sharply increase the nation’s food supply during the national emergency by freeing vast quantities of grain. On December 18, 1917, Congress bowed to the pressure and sent the proposed amendment out to the states. Ratification was completed on January 29, 1919.

Although prohibition itself proved a failure, the model the temperance lobbies provided served to encourage the formation of other national-interest groups over the next twenty years. Ironically, one of the most successful was the repeal lobby that secured the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment in December, 1933, which restored the nation’s right to drink.


Three things are worth noting about lobbies in the years since World War n. The first is the increased professionalism of lobbies generally, their adoption of publicrelations and advertising techniques, and their effective use of modern technology to get their messages across. The danger, of course, is that such efforts to influence legislation are very expensive, and there is always the threat that access to Congress may be limited to the most powerful and wealthiest organizations.

A second development is the emergence in recent years of public-interest lobbies, at once an evidence of the complexity of modern government and the power Washington has to affect our lives and proof that the notion of democracy implicit in the First Amendment’s protection of the right of petition is not limited to the few. Whatever one may think of the individual programs or policies advocated by Zero Population Growth, or Common Cause, or Friends of the Earth, or Right to Life, or other such groups, there is something heartening about a political system that gives them access to the lawmaking process.

In fact, it is the ease of access that makes the third development in recent years most compelling and perhaps most significant. In 1946, at long last, Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act to bring the lobbies under formal control. The movement toward reform had begun at the state level some seventy years earlier, when Georgia outlawed improper lobbying in 1877. But continued progress was painfully slow. Despite the clear evidence of widespread abuse—Congress held eight major hearings after 1913 on various bribery attempts alone—little was done. Proposed general legislation in 1928, 1935, and 1936 died on the House or Senate floor. A breakthrough of sorts came afterward with the passage of special lobbying laws affecting the electrical utilities industry, the merchant marine, and agents for foreign governments.

Welcome as the 1946 law was, it was—and is—only a beginning, and most critics are convinced the law is too riddled by loopholes to be an effective deterrent to the misuse of the lobbies’ powers. Because of narrow limits in defining a lobby—the influencing of legislation must be the principal intent of the organization or individual—many corporations and many powerful special-interest groups, like the National Association of Manufacturers or the National Rifle Association, have never registered. According to decisions by the Supreme Court only direct contact with members of Congress is covered by the law; thus letterwriting campaigns, campaign contributions, and other lobbying techniques are not controlled, nor is testimony offered to a congressional committee. Most important of all, the reporting of expenditures is so loosely defined that lobbies are often free to spend vast sums with impunity. The American Medical Association, for example, allegedly spent an estimated million dollars on advertising in opposition to Medicare in 1965 but was legally required to report only about $45,000 in direct lobbying. More recently the Association of American Railroads spent upward of nine million dollars in a three-month advertising campaign on radio and television and in the press to enlist public support for the Surface Transportation Act of 1972; the association officially reported lobbying expenses of $4,972.13 for the period.

Every effort to strengthen the law has failed—often by substantial margins—and Congress has shown a similar reluctance to draft stronger legislation than is now available in three related areas: campaign financing, the personal disclosure of the financial interests of members of the House and Senate, and standards of ethical conduct for the nation’s representatives.

The need for such legislation is clear. Despite the disappearance of the old-style lobbyists, conflicts of interest, bribery, and patently illegal attempts to influence legislation are still a part of the lawmaking process. Since 1971, for example, two members of the House and four of their associates have been convicted of lobbying violations. At least two senators have been indicted by grand juries. And the campaign-financing scandals revealed in the Watergate hearings merely underscore the need for reform. The right to lobby is too important to us all to have it unprotected from misuse.

The word “lobby” had entered the English language as a noun by the sixteenth century. A lobby was originally a passage or covered walk in a monastery, but by 1640 the word had been applied to the entrance hall and two corridors where members of the British House of Commons retired to vote and where, on occasion, they might meet nonmembers who were not allowed on the chamber floor. By 1808, during the sessions of the Tenth Congress, the word had taken on its current meaning; it had entered the general vocabulary by 1832, when “lobbying” was in use as well. “To lobby” had entered the American language by 1848, “lobbyist” by 1863. “Boodle” and “boodler#8221;—signifying “bribe” and “grafter,” respectively—were in general use in the 1880’s. “Influence peddler” was coined in the 1930’s and “five percenter” in the 1940’s.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.