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The Land of Lobby

Political folklore has it that the term "lobbying" originated during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, when, brandy in one hand, cigar in the other, the former general would plant himself in the lobby of his favorite hotel and wait for the public to come offering and asking for favors. This apocryphal tale certainly paints a vivid picture of the art-gaggles of influence peddlers buzzing around the man in power, wheedling, cajoling, sweating and making hushed promises, carrying away either good news or bad.

It is a scene that has been repeated ad infinitum since government began, and it will continue as long government exists. Indeed, as long as lawmakers have ears, lobbyists will be found whispering into them.

In its purest sense, lobbying represents our First Amendment right as Americans to peaceably petition the government for a redress of grievances. It's a way to make our desires known to our leaders, to tell them what we think about laws and legislation. But increasingly, lobbying has become the purview of professionals, men and women hired by special interest groups seeking to influence which bills get made or killed, depending on what benefits their particular agenda. The specter of the quid pro quo always hangs over negotiations between lobbyists and lawmakers. Increasingly the lobbying equation has centered not just around access to lawmakers — but with seemingly guaranteed results. The interaction of lobbyist and politician carries with it the possibility for corruption, conspiracy, fraud, and a host of other unsavories, as the Jack Abramoff scandal has made abundantly clear.

In 2005, lobbyists in the United States spent $2.3 billion-up from $1.5 billion just five years earlier-on behalf of their clients. But what exactly are clients buying? Abramoff was able to charge millions in fees for his lobbying because he had the kind of relationship with certain members of the Republican leadership that few others did. As "Capitol Crimes" showed, special interest groups were willing to pay big money for that kind of access which in turn produced results. A direct pipeline to power means a much better chance that when push comes to shove, the chips will fall in your favor.

And for that same reason-because of their intricate knowledge of the system and their important ties to the players-a sizeable percentage of congressmen and staffers who have left the Hill since 1998 have joined lobbying firms. Indeed, a lobbyist is only as powerful as the number of close relationships he or she has with those who hold the reins. And beyond that, many former lawmakers have found that they can double or triple their congressional salaries in their new profession; it's no wonder then that the number of registered full-time lobbyists doubled between 2000 and 2005, to nearly 35,000.

Considering all the recent attention paid to lobbying in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, it is interesting to note that super-lobbyists like Abramoff existed more than 150 years ago in America. The most notable was undoubtedly Sam Ward, known as the "King of the Lobby," who in the 1860s and '70s made a fortune in Washington representing big-name companies and foreign interests. When testifying before Congress in 1875, he spoke plainly about the difficulties inherent in his oft-denigrated profession. "I am not ashamed-I do not say I am proud, but I am not ashamed-of the occupation," he said. "The disappointments are much more numerous than the successes. I have had many a very pleasant 'contingent' knocked away when everything appeared prosperous and certain, and I would not insure any bill, [even] if I were paid fifty per cent, to secure its passage."

"Congress has always had, and always will have, lobbyists and lobbying," says former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. "We could not adequately consider our workload without them." But he also stresses the need for vigilance. "The history of this institution demonstrates the need for eternal vigilance to ensure that lobbyists do not abuse their role, that lobbying is carried on publicly with full publicity, and that the interests of all citizens are heard without giving special ear to the best organized and most lavishly funded."

Whether the recent scandals will propel Congress to enact lobbying reform still remains to be seen, but with almost half of all congressmen joining lobbying firms after serving their terms, one must question whether it is in their best interest to do so.

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Sources: Open Secrets.org; The Center for Public Integrity; THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, "Lobby Reform Easier Said then Done;" ACFNew Source

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