Accessibility links

Influencing Power in Washington


Lobbying is a longstanding tradition in America. But many analysts say that through the years, it has become a lucrative business, which mostly benefits wealthy special interests.

Trying to influence people in power is constitutionally protected in the United States. “The First Amendment of our Constitution protects the right to petition government for redress of grievances. That’s where lobbies, interest groups and organizations come in”, says John Samples, Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government.

Lobbying has much to do with the nation’s tradition of grassroots democracy, he says. “If you go back a couple of centuries, people who visited America often remarked on how Americans seem to have a tendency to join groups, to get organized, to do things through voluntary associations. That’s continued down to this day.”

Legend has it that the term "lobbyist" was coined in 1869 by President Ulysses S. Grant to describe the dozens of people who approached him seeking political patronage or legislative favors. While living at the White House, Grant used to walk to the nearby Willard hotel to relax, have a brandy and enjoy a cigar.

"Apparently, his wife did not want him smoking cigars in the White House. So he used to come to the lobby of the Willard Hotel. When the president's fondness for the lobby became noted, some of the power brokers of the day found out and would come to the lobby of the Willard Hotel to petition the president on their individual causes. He called those people 'lobbyists' because they used to hang out in the lobby of the Willard Hotel," says Barbara Bahny David, Director of Public Relations at what is now the Willard InterContinental Washington.

K Street, Washington’s "Lobby Avenue"

Now, decades later, K Street has become Washington's lobby avenue. K Street is only 11 blocks long, but it is home to many of the estimated 14,000 lobbyists who work in the nation's capital.

According to Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit organization which tracks money in politics, almost everyone in America is connected to a lobbyist. "Certainly the big interests have plenty of lobbyists. The oil industry, defense industry, drug industry -- they have a lot of lobbyists. But people don't realize that a lobbyist also represents you if you are a student at a public university, if you are a taxpayer, if you are a member of a labor union. The difference is: How loud can that lobbyist speak? How many of them are there and what sort of access do they have to politicians?"

Ritsch says that the boom in the number of Washington lobbyists since the mid-1990s is largely a result of the expanding U.S. budget, which during last fiscal year, was about $2.8 trillion.

"One big reason that lobbying has grown so much is because the government has so much money that it hands out through government contracts, earmarks [i.e., targeted legislative spending] and for projects around the country. So there are a lot of different interests competing for that money and the lobbyists help them compete," says Ritsch.

Big Government, More Lobbies

Another reason for the rise of what many analysts call "the influence industry" is increased government regulation, especially of American corporations, says the Cato Institute's John Samples.

"Many businesses are regulated by government in one way or the other. So it's almost a continual set of political conflicts that can affect their business profoundly,” says Samples. “For example, government can keep them from entering markets or exiting markets, or taxes can go up. And when government does more, there are more things and decisions to be influenced. So you would expect that when government is growing, the number of lobbyists would also grow."

In addition to lobbying Congress, interest groups try to influence the Executive Branch of government because how the laws are interpreted and carried out often is critical to their clients. American University political historian Allan Lichtmann points to two major bills recently pushed for by several powerful business interests.

"We recently had an energy bill passed, which had subsidies and tax breaks with many billions of dollars to the big oil companies who were very heavily lobbying for those very provisions. We recently had a prescription drug benefit bill pass, which is worth perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars to the big pharmaceutical or drug companies, and, of course, they lobbied very heavily for that," says Lichtmann.

The Revolving Door

Lichtmann says another prominent group, AARP, which represents the interests of people 50 years of age and older, also lobbied for the prescription drug benefit. It's not rare, he adds, for organizations representing divergent interests to work together on legislation. Many analysts, including Professor Lichtmann, contend that former lawmakers and government officials are among the most influential lobbyists in Washington.

"For example, John Ashcroft who was the Attorney General during the first George W. Bush term is now a lobbyist. He is a very important Republican lobbyist. On the other side, for example, John Breaux, who was a Democratic senator from Louisiana, is now a lobbyist. Studies have shown that when we look at the United States House of Representatives, about 40 percent of former Representatives go on to become lobbyists when they quit the Congress," says Litchtmann.

Although public pressure on government through lobbies is a part of the democratic process, some analysts caution that recent lobbying scandals involving members of Congress have tainted the profession.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

XS
SM
MD
LG