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The Capitol Lobbyist Is a Hale Fellow, Well Met—if You're in Congress

updated 07/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1981 01:00AM

No sooner had America got lawmakers than it got lobbyists. Land speculators buying off legislators infuriated George Washington. And even a national hero like Daniel Webster during his Senate days thought nothing of accepting $32,000 from a Philadelphia bank to protect its interests. Today in Washington, D.C. lobbyists, representing everyone from Exxon to the National Rifle Association, continue to jockey for position and influence. As founder and editor in chief of the feisty Washington Monthly, Charles Peters has seen them all. A lawyer and former West Virginia state legislator, Peters once lobbied Congress as a Peace Corps executive before launching his magazine in 1969. Last year Peters, 54, codified his insights in a book called How Washington Really Works (Addison-Wesley, $5.95). He recently mapped for Clare Crawford-Mason of PEOPLE the Byzantine world of the Washington lobbyist.

How do lobbyists influence politicians?

The fundamental secret understood by successful lobbyists is that the first and foremost desire of people in power is to remain in power. The day a congressman or bureaucrat arrives in Washington he gets busy building a network of people who will help him survive. The clever lobbyist will help build a survival network for the officials he tries to influence. And every time he meets one of those officials, he will—very subtly—let him know it.

How is this done?

Picture yourself a freshman congressman at your first dinner party at the lobbyist's house. He introduces you to his guests: the chairman of a committee you want to serve on; an executive of a federal agency important to your home district; a sympathetic journalist. These people, in turn, will see you as someone who can advance their interests. And the person responsible for all these useful new links? None other than the clever lobbyist.

What is the lobbyist's next move?

He plays on the self-pity of some officials, their feeling that they aren't paid what they deserve or what their $200,000-a-year lawyer friends in private practice are making. So the lobbyist takes them to lunch at posh places like Lion D'Or, Mel Krupin's or the Palm. And he lets them rub shoulders with the socialite members at the exclusive Metropolitan, Cosmos or Federal City clubs. Suddenly the official who didn't make the best fraternity or was a victim of snobbery in high school is meeting the finest people in Washington. He is grateful to the lobbyist.

But hasn't Abscam shown that the way to a congressman's heart is through his wallet?

Actually, the Abscam kind of person is rare. I'd say no more than 10 percent of the Congress could be bought by direct cash payments. There are more subtle techniques which are equally effective and have the added advantage of being legal.

Like?

The paid speaking engagement. A big lobbying group calls and says, "Senator, you're such a marvelous speaker; we need your kind of inspiration at our next convention, which is in Honolulu. We'll pay all your expenses and an honorarium of $2,500." The senator gets wined and dined, spends a day at the beach with the group's top officials, is driven to the airport. When the president of the association calls a few months later, don't you think the senator is going to listen?

What about campaign contributions?

After the speaking engagements, it's the closest thing to a payoff. And it doesn't have to be a big contribution. In fact, the more conscientious the congressman, the more a big check is likely to trouble him. So, except in the larger states, the accepted price of access is $500 for representatives and $1,000 for senators—not enough to be suspicious, but enough to help the campaign. It buys the right of access. The average man does not have that kind of access.

Is access all the lobbyist wants?

Often it's enough. On smaller issues, whichever side gets to the congressman usually wins. And on big issues, a friend's voice is likely to stand out in the cacophony. The explicit quid pro quo is rare. Only the vulgar and incompetent lobbyist will let these things seem bald and embarrassing. Usually, the congressman doesn't think he's doing anything for, say, the oil companies; he sincerely thinks he's doing it for a dear old friend of his.

You're saying personal loyalties are the bottom line?

Right. The official wants to help his fellow networker in his hour of need. Even the lobbyist may sometimes be more loyal to his network than to his client. The folks at Mobil or Exxon may someday forget him, but his network won't. This is a complex truth about Washington that analysts from either the left or the right rarely see.

Is the press being hoodwinked?

No; reporters are part of the survival networks, so they don't want to see them exposed. The more prominent the newsman, the more he's a prisoner of his sources. The guy who is described in the story as "the distinguished public servant"—well, you can bet he was the source for the story.

How many lobbyists are in Washington?

That's hard to say. Only about 5,500 individuals are registered under the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, which defines a lobbyist as one who is paid to influence congressional legislation and raises money for that purpose. This omits people who lobby the executive branch, groups like trade associations that can show lobbying is not their main purpose for raising money, and groups that use their own money or don't personally approach congressmen.

How did lobbyists' groups become so ubiquitous?

Special-interest groups have always been with us, but they used to function within coalitions known as the Democratic and Republican parties. But as civil service increasingly replaced patronage, the parties lost the glue that had kept them together, and the lobbies were able to enforce their demands through campaign contributions. Later the Kennedys and the rise of TV news glamorized Washington, making an office here prestigious. Then the expansion of regulatory agencies in the Johnson and Nixon years convinced many companies that they were threatened and needed people in Washington to protect them.

What kind of backgrounds do lobbyists have?

Since companies want high-class people representing them, many are lawyers. Generally, lawyers is what they call themselves, too, because nobody wants to be called a lobbyist.

Then why do they go into lobbying?

Because of the general bad aroma, few choose it as a first career. Most lobbyists are former officials who realize that Washington has become their home and that the one marketable skill they have is knowledge of how the government works. Former congressmen, the biggest group, have an access advantage because they are allowed in all the private areas of the House and Senate.

Wouldn't incumbents tend to treat them contemptuously?

On the contrary, they look up at the former big shot and say to themselves, "Someday I may be in that man's shoes. I better be courteous to him."

Do lobbyists peddle misinformation?

That's the last thing they want to do. If you make your lobbyee look like a fool, he might lose the next election or at the very least never talk to you again. So you would lose a member of your survival network, and only a stupid lobbyist would risk that. By the way, good lobbyists never show anger when they fail to persuade. Why burn bridges?

Do lobbyists at least speed the legislative process by providing information?

The basic rule is, "Keep the meter running." I recently had lunch with a lobbyist who told me a leading congressman had just reproached him: "Sam, you got that bill through in one session; you're only going to get one fee. You could have stretched it out for three years' worth of fees."

Has President Reagan tamed the lobbies, or vice versa?

He backed away from cutting subsidies for synthetic fuel development, and his fear of the elderly lobby made him soften proposed cuts in Social Security, veterans' and Medicare benefits. On the other hand, he did take on and defeat the powerful dairy lobby, refusing to raise price supports. Reagan has the one thing that can defeat the lobbies: the power to persuade the public. And he has it more than any President since FDR. The lobbies can't win if you show the congressman he's going to lose more by opposing the President than by opposing the lobbies.

So is "lobbying" a dirty word?

No. Like "politics," it's just the exercise of your democratic rights. But citizens should do two things. Stop voting on the basis of single issues and consider a politician's overall record. Congressmen must be relieved of the terror of voting against the special interests. And start writing and speaking out on issues that concern you. The government needs to hear what you think. In that sense, we need more lobbying, not less.

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