July 18, 2024

Although most Americans are aware that there are lobbyists working actively to influence members of Congress, they may not be aware of the long standing history and broad scope of this political tradition. In recent years, lobbying has experienced unbelievable growth–both the number of lobbyists and the amount of money they earn have increased significantly. Here, we discuss the rampant expansion of this field: 

Lobbying is not an American invention; the term dates back to the British legislative system in the 1640s and described a gathering where the public could meet in the lobby of the House of Commons to urge the representatives to vote according to their pleas. The term “lobbying” became popular in the United States during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency; he often chose to relax in the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. and was constantly pestered by petitioners that he referred to as “lobbyists.”

In the mid nineteenth century, a Washington D.C. newspaper printed a column titled “The Dragons of the Lobby” by Emily Edson Briggs. Edison Briggs described the lobbyists as “a dragon winding in and out of the corridors stretching its slimy length from gallery to committee rooms.” She also referred to large groups of lobbyists as “a scaly serpent” in her book, The Olivia Letters: Being a History of Washington City for 40 Years, written in 1906.

In today’s society, many Americans view lobbyists as corrupt and unethical, similar to the way Edison Briggs depicted them over a hundred years ago. However, congressmen and their staff are not legally able to accept gifts from lobbyists to sway their votes on upcoming legislation, as past scandals have cost Congressmen their jobs and caused lobbyists to be held on a tighter legal leash. There are a few loopholes: donations from lobbyists and their clients to an election campaign are legal, and legislators can trade their votes on a lobbyist’s project in exchange for the lobbyist’s help on their own projects. Although lobbyists are, by definition, “special interest” groups, it has become impossible to counteract or eliminate their influence in Congress. Technically, lobbyists’ rights are protected in the Constitution; the First Amendment allows this representation for hire through the statement that it is “the right of people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

“Due to the length and complexity of today’s legislation, many members of Congress do not have the time to read and understand all of it before a vote. Therefore, many feel that lobbyists–proponents or opponents of that legislation–help clarify the major benefits and drawbacks,” stated expert political strategist Neal Kwatra

Lobbyists are considered experts in their field, and therefore, they often have the power to suggest or even write legislation. For example, the Affordable Care Act in 2009 had a record 1,750 corporations lobby Congress in both the House and Senate. Although lobbying can be beneficial in some cases, the recent surge in the number of lobbyists has generated a public concern that legislation is for sale to the highest bidder. 

Nearly half of all former Congressmen are eventually employed on K Street, which is home to many of the top lobbying firms. According to the Washington Post, there are nearly 35,000 registered lobbyists, double the number in 2000. With this sheer growth in number, the fees these lobbyists charge has doubled as well. The annual salaries of former congressional staffers are scaling up to $300,000 per year. Job offers for recent congressional members and senior administrators has reached the point of bidding by lobbying firms and trade associations; the highest-valued recruits are earning over one million dollars annually in salary and benefits.

This trend is troubling to political historians. As the field of lobbying grows and the cost and salaries rise, the gap between those with the most resources and those with fewer resources widens dramatically.  Those with fewer resources will not have lobbyists to represent them before Congress and consequently may be unsuccessful.