The term “lobbyist” has been around a long time and presumably it came to us from England. Petitioners to the English Parliament were not allowed on the floor of the chambers and so they waited in the lobby to speak to their representatives–hence, the name “lobbyist.”
I could find no negative connotation to the activity as it was practiced in England, nor in the early days of our country where the practice was adopted. The first lobbyist to Congress on record was William Hull, who in 1792 was hired by the Virginia Veterans of the Continental Army to obtain an increase in their compensation for services in the Revolutionary War–certainly an understandable and honorable cause.
However, today the term lobbyist conjures up all kinds of images, most of them negative. I might go so far as to say that to most people it is a pejorative term, largely because it is most often referred to in the media in connection with some kind of scandal or corruption.
In 1987, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., devoted one of a series of historical addresses to the subject of “lobbyists.” He opened his address with this statement:
“Mr. President, in 1869, a newspaper correspondent published this vivid description of a monster in the Capitol building: ‘Winding in and out through the long, devious basement passage, crawling through the corridors, trailing its slimy length on the floor of Congress–this dazzling reptile, this huge, scaly serpent of the lobby.’ What was this awful creature? It was intended as the embodiment of lobbyists who were proliferating in the years after the Civil War and who, many believed, were corrupting the Congress. Even today, the media tend to portray legislative lobbyists as some form of monster. And yet, we realize that lobbyists play an important and essential role in the legislative process.”
The view of the correspondent that Sen. Byrd quoted was reinforced by President Grant who, about the same time, heaped scorn on the people hanging around the lobby of the Willard Hotel for the purpose of influencing legislation. He called them “lobbyists” with all the contempt he could muster. Thus was born our own version of lobbyist and starting off with a poor image.
But Sen. Byrd was correct when he said that lobbyists play an important and essential role in the legislative process. Lobbyists are an important source of information to lawmakers. We live in a very complex world today and lawmakers are called upon to make decisions on esoteric issues well beyond their own or their staff’s understanding. Almost every legislative issue brings with it conflicting points of view. Lobbyists are advocates of a point of view and one that might not be heard were it not for the role lobbyists play. In many respects, it is an educational function and by listening to all sides, lawmakers are able to make better judgments about the way a law should be framed.