In American folklore, it is President Grant who coined the term “lobbyists” to designate those influence peddlers who attempted to bribe him with whiskey and cigars during his jaunts to the Willard Hotel in exchange for political favors.
The term, in fact, is much older -- as is the practice itself. In 1792, for instance, veterans of the Continental Army from Virginia sent one William Hull to Washington, D.C. to petition for higher compensation.
Lobbying went unregulated until 1946, when Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, requiring those who spent at least half of their time on the Hill in service of outside groups or individuals to become officially registered with the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House.
In 1995, President Clinton signed into law the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), which expanded the definition of a lobbyist to include anyone who spends at least 20 percent -- rather than 50 percent -- of her time engaged in lobbying activities.Also, the LDA mandates that any entity that spends at least $10,000 annually on lobbying activity must report twice a year with good faith estimates: the amount it spent in the previous 6 months, the names of its lobbyists, the issues it sought to influence, and which actors in government it lobbied.
Since 1998, the government has disclosed this information to the public.
Lobbying underwent its third and most significant legal makeover following the Abramoff scandals.
Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff exploited his connections with congressional Republicans, especially former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, in order to charge exorbitant rates to groups seeking insider influence. For instance, Abramoff charged various Indian tribes millions of dollars in consulting fees -- some of which he illegally funneled to religious and anti-tax conservative groups -- in order to protect or close their casinos, depending on the needs of his clients.
Abramoff spoiled his congressional partners with lavish gifts. He flew DeLay to the Northern Mariana Islands, for instance, before DeLay helped kill a bill in Congress raising labor standards and wages for workers living in the American commonwealth.
He also flew religious conservative Ralph Reed and Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) to Scotland to persuade Ney to re-open a Tigua-run casino in Texas that Abramoff helped shutter a year earlier.
A year after Abramoff pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion, Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) in 2007. The law expanded the range of expenses that lobbyists must report to include contributions to federal candidates and to leadership PACs.
HLOGA also instituted “cooling-off” periods that require members of Congress and their staffers to wait 1 to 2 years before registering as lobbyists.
The effects of these measures are difficult to gauge. Analysts from Open Secrets, a transparency watchdog group, fear that these measures have perversely encouraged lobbyists to go underground.
For instance, the group notes that between 2007 and 2012, the amount spent by the top 100 lobbying groups increased by 19 percent, while the number of lobbyists representing them dropped 25 percent.In other words, a lobbyist may still engage in lobbying-like activities, but -- in order to shirk the burden of registering and reporting their activities -- change their title to “special policy adviser,” as Tom Daschle (D-SD) did when he joined the law firm Alston & Bird following his failed 2004 Senate re-election bid.
Daschle’s rapid re-entry recalls the stubborn persistence of the “revolving door” phenomenon that HLOGA attempted to curtail.
While HLOGA requires a 1-year “cooling off” period for House staffers, the law includes an oft exploited “salary loophole.” A staffer can return immediately to the Hill as a lobbyist so long as his or her annual salary falls below $103,500. Since the passage of HLOGA, more than 1,650 congressional aides have utilized this loophole.
However, these figures -- and the connotations of the term “lobbying” itself -- misconstrue the real relationship between members of Congress and lobbyists.
NPR correspondents Alex Blumberg and Andrea Seabrook reported in 2012 that members of Congress must raise $10,000 to $15,000 every day in order to have enough funds to finance the next election cycle. When the well runs dry after cold-calling past and prospective donors -- sometimes for several hours per day -- they turn to those who have the most money to throw around.
As Alex Blumberg put it:
The way most of us generally think about it is absolutely backwards. We imagine the lobbyists stalking the halls of Congress, trying to influence members with cash. But more often than not, it's the reverse-- the member is stalking the lobbyists, saying, "Hey, can I have some of that money?"
On some occasions, members of Congress are able to convince a lobbyist to arrange an event -- such as an impromptu fundraiser at some D.C. steakhouse -- that brings numerous lobbyists bearing thousand-dollar checks together in exchange for some valuable face time.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), for instance, boasts that she attended roughly 400 such fundraisers in 2011.Naturally, some industries are more inclined to lobby legislators than others.
In 2013, the top 5 industries spent the following amounts to the nearest million: (1) pharmaceuticals and health products: $226 million; (2) insurance: $153 million; (3) oil and gas: $145 million; (4) computers and Internet: $141 million; (5) electric utilities: $130 million.
Cash-hungry members of Congress respond accordingly. Party leaders in both houses place fundraising goals for fellow partisans based on their committee assignments, some of which are more lucrative than others.
For instance, members of the Ways and Means Committee -- which deals with the budget -- pull in $250,000 more than the average member of Congress. Those who sit on the Financial Services and Energy and Commerce committees raise well over $100,000 above the mean.
However, these contributions are never a guarantee that a lobbyist will see his or her preferred version of a bill scheduled for a vote, or that his or her desired, niche carve-out or exemption will find its way into a bill's final language.
What, then, do the more than 12,000 registered lobbyists -- to use 2013's figures -- get with the more than $3 billion they spend each year?
Editor's Note: This article is part one of a two-part series on the history and impact of congressional lobbying. Check back soon for part 2.