How Lobbying Works

History of Lobbying in America

First, let's dispel the rumors about the alleged origin of the word "lobbying." There are numerous sources and articles that identify the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. as the original "lobby." According to legend, President Ulysses S. Grant would retire to the hotel's lobby in the late 1860s for a sip of brandy and a cigar only to be hounded by hordes of petitioners whom the gruff Civil War general referred to as "those damn lobbyists" [source: We Love DC]. While Grant and other American politicians may have helped popularize the term, the earliest uses of "lobby" came from England in the 1640s, referring to the lobbies in the House of Commons, where the public could directly petition its representatives [source: Hansen].

Lobbyists have been a fixture in American politics since the very first session of Congress. Tariff bills were the major focus of early lobbying efforts. In 1789, Pennsylvania senator William Maclay described New York City merchants delaying the passage of a tariff bill by plying congressmen with "treats, dinners [and] attentions" [source: Byrd].

Corporate interests have always imposed their will on Congress through aggressive lobbying. In the earliest decades of the American experiment, it was the Bank of the United States that carried elected officials in its deep pockets. In a direct conflict of interest, several sitting congressmen sat on the board of the private bank, receiving steady paychecks from the institution they wrote legislation to support [source: Byrd]. Senator Byrd reads from a letter that the famed Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster sent to the Bank of the United States inquiring about his "retainer":

"Since I arrived here, I have had an application to be concerned, professionally, against the Bank, which I have declined, of course, although I believe my retainer has not been renewed, or refreshed, as usual. If it be wished that my relation to the Bank should be continued, it may be well to send me the usual retainer."

The darkest days of lobbying came during America's "Gilded Age," the period from the end of the Civil War until the close of the 19th century, when wealthy industrialists and huge new corporations ruled the American economic and political landscape.

The railroad lobby is a prime example from that period. The truth is that the transcontinental railroad could never have been built without huge subsidies and land grants from the federal government [source: White]. There was very little interest from private investors to support such an ambitious and financially uncertain project [source: Surowiecki]. It took a huge scandal, known as the Credit Mobilier affair, to expose the widespread bribes and corrupt tactics employed by the railroad lobby to buy the political favors of congressmen. Sadly, the transcontinental railroad, which should have been a symbol of American ingenuity, was the result of corporate fat cats and corrupt politicians making themselves rich on the backs of the American taxpayer.

The self-proclaimed "King of the Lobby" from the Gilded Age was Sam Ward, who threw the most lavish parties on Capitol Hill, where congressional committee members dined on the best food in the city accompanied by beautiful women and thrilling conversation. A brilliant chef, Ward even opened a private restaurant exclusively for the D.C. political elite. His famous motto was that the shortest distance between a pending bill and a congressman's "aye" was through his stomach [source: Jacob]. Ward was suspected of large-scale bribery, but never convicted of any crime.

Now we'll jump from the excesses of the 19th century to the modern lobbying machine. First, who exactly is a lobbyist?