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The lobbyist through history: villainy and virtue

Once, a good pistol and congressional stationery were influence enough for lobbyists.

By Staff writer / September 28, 2009

A lobbyist at the Russell Senate Office Building.

Photo Illustration: Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff


Lobbyists have besieged the US government for as long as it has had lobbies.

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One of the first was William Hull, an ex-Revolutionary War officer who in 1792 was hired by fellow veterans from Massachusetts to press a claim for back pay they felt the nation still owed them for winning its liberty. Mr. Hull – a proud-looking sort with luxuriant hair – traveled to Philadelphia (then the nation’s capital) and discovered that no other state had sent a similar representative.

So he did what any modern K Street operative might do – he rounded up a coalition. He sent letters to veterans groups around the country, urging them to dispatch agents just like him to help Congress make up its mind.

Unfortunately, at the time, US finances were not exactly stable (sound familiar?) and Hull failed, mostly.

Later in life, he became the first governor of the Michigan Territory, and surrendered Detroit to the British in the War of 1812 under debatable circumstances. He was tried for treason and sentenced to be shot. President Madison reprieved him due to his Revolutionary service.

Hull’s career thus sums up three primary tenets of the lobbyist’s art:

1. Lobbying is a scramble. It’s not just quiet meals with powerful people – Hull talked to President Washington as often as he liked. You’ve got to keep moving, find allies, cover all the many arms of the government involved in your issue.

2. Lobbyists lose as often as they win. Getting something done in Washington is hard – just look at what’s happening with healthcare reform. Yet the city is full of lobbyists and trade associations engaged in the Sisyphean task of trying to get Congress to accept a particular legislative provision, or the bureaucracy to agree to their interpretation of a disputed regulation.

3. Some lobbyists experience spectacular personal flameouts. Yes, that treason conviction is kind of an outlier. But what about Sam Ward? The “King of the Lobby,” got hauled before Congress in 1875 on suspicion that he’d distributed $100,000 in bribes. And then there’s Jack Abramoff, who in 2006 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials. “Can you smell money?!?!?” Mr. Abramoff once wrote to an associate about a pending deal.

“Congress has always had, and always will have, lobbyists and lobbying,” said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia in a 1987 floor speech. “We could not adequately consider our workload without them.... At the same time, the history of the institution demonstrates the need for eternal vigilance to ensure that lobbyists do not abuse their role.”

Commercial interests have lobbied the government from its first days. An early petition received by the Continental Congress was one from merchants desiring an end to the molasses tax.