Many people assume the lobbying business was born during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. The general, who loved his whiskey and cigars, would repair to the lobby of the Willard Hotel, which sits a few blocks from the White House. As soon as Grant lit his stogie, he would be set upon by mendicants and petitioners of all stripes—who had the kind of presidential access their lobbyist heirs can only dream about. Although that prestigious hotel assiduously promoted the mythic origin of the word lobbyist, the appellation was in use long before Grant’s tenure.
The word is probably sourced from the lobbies in the House of Commons, where the British public could speak with members of the government, but the act of lobbying got its start as soon as early man figured out he needed something from someone else. In fact, its practitioners are often compared to those working in the world’s oldest profession, though it’s not clear who should feel more insulted. Because our politicians can’t imagine a human activity they shouldn’t control, their lobbyist friends, generally seen as snake-oil salesmen, seldom lack work.
The dysfunction of our national government does not result only from overregulation and unrestrained spending. A culture of corruption has long plagued our body politic. Moneyed interests on both ends of the political spectrum have employed legions of lobbyists, strategic advisors and public relations experts to control our national legislative and executive branches.
I should know, since I was one of them. For years I was able to get pretty much anything I wanted for my clients. In my case, scandal brought me down and ended my career. But casting me into prison didn’t change how this game is played.
While most Americans feel the system will never be reformed, recent media focus on congressional perfidy has invigorated citizen activists bent on ending the rule of the elites in our nation’s capital. Shocking reports of congressmen amassing wealth through insider trading and receiving sweetheart home loans have driven the approval rating of the legislative branch below that of Casey Anthony. Even the most obtuse representative is starting to notice the rumblings of discontent in the hinterlands.
A call is rising in the land to stop members of Congress from enriching themselves through public service. It’s possible that reform advocates on both sides of the political divide will come together this year to push legislation that will prevent public servants from cashing in on their service by stopping lobbyists and their clients from making federal political contributions, mandating term limits for Congress and forcing legislators to apply to themselves all laws they pass for the citizens they represent. These reforms would level the playing field in Washington and undermine the dominance of moneyed interests.
Furthermore, a national consensus is building that our federal government is too big and controls our lives in too many ways. Even President Obama, who engineered the greatest expansion of federal control in recent times, has sought authority from Congress to eliminate redundant governmental agencies. Still, those advocating an all-encompassing nanny state often don’t see that every time the Washington behemoth expands, more lobbyists and special interests flood the corridors of power to seek privilege.
There is no way to know whether these nascent efforts at reform will one day result in real change. We can only hope for the best. In the meantime we have to deal with reality—and reality means thousands of federal employees working overtime to complicate our lives. So what do people do when their interests are about to be adversely impacted by a feckless congressman or his staff?
Let’s say you own the Acme Picture Frame Company based in the Midwest. Your family has made picture frames for generations, and they’re the nicest picture frames available. One day a septuagenarian senator from New England has his staff purchase a picture frame from a local emporium. They don’t buy an Acme frame. They buy a cheap imitation, and when the venerable senator lifts it to hang a picture of his dog Fido, the frame comes apart, cutting his hand.
Being used to getting everything he wants in life, the senator throws a tantrum. When he is done fulminating, he knows what to do. A quick call to his legislative director is soon followed by the introduction of new legislation: the Omnibus Picture Frame Act of 2012. The act regulates every aspect of the frame-production business and mandates a process that requires Acme to close its factory and completely retool. In these recessionary times, that means your company goes under. What do you do?
One response might be to call your family and workers together, thank them for their years of dedicated service and ask the last one remaining to shut the doors and turn out the lights.
Another reaction might be to ignore these silly new laws and keep making quality frames, as you have for generations—and when the FBI kicks in your door and carts you away to the federal hoosegow, you’ll have the satisfaction of telling the other inmates you didn’t buckle to the Man.
Or you might realize your problem started in Washington and must be solved in Washington. You have as much luck getting your local congressman to focus on your problem as you do getting your teenager to clean his room, and since you can’t relocate to the nation’s capital and quickly build relationships with the power players, you have one choice: Hire a lobbyist.