It would be remiss for any political historian writing about the US during the nineteenth century to ignore the Willard’s City Hotel, situated on the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The first Japanese envoys stayed there in 1860. In February 1861, delegates from twenty-one of the thirty-four states met at the Willard in a last-ditch attempt to avert the Civil War. The Willard brothers, cognizant of the tension between the delegates, arranged for southerners to stay on one floor and use the 14th Street entrance, while the northerners entered on the Pennsylvania Avenue-side of the building. It was at the Willard that Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And before his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln stayed in a suite on the second floor looking out toward the White House on the west.
The grandest hotel in Washington D.C., it boasted 150 rooms. Guests had access to the unheard of luxury bathing rooms—one for ladies and another for gentlemen. Each was equipped with moveable tubs that were supplied with hot water from the laundry’s steam heating apparatus. A brisk seven-minute walk from the White House and a little under half-an-hour from Capitol Hill, it was a convenient place to stay for businessmen, governors, and ambassadors who had dealings with the government.
During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant stayed at the Willard when in Washington and was friendly with the Willard brothers. After he was elected president in 1869, he would stroll over to their hotel for a smoke, having been banished from the White House by his wife Julia, who couldn’t abide the smell of cigars about the house. As Grant smoked about twenty cigars a day, he spent a good few hours at the Willard. As word spread that Grant frequented the Willard, many “office-seekers, wire-pullers” would bend the president’s ear while he stood in the lobby enjoying a brandy and his daily quota of cigars.
Grant was not the only target, as British journalist William Howard Russell related. “The great employment of four-fifths of the people at Willard’s at present seems to be to hunt senators and congressmen through the lobbies. Every man is heavy with documents – those which he cannot carry in his pockets and hat, occupy his hands, or are thrust under his arms.” It was Grant who is said to have called these pests “lobbyists,” thus popularizing the term. By the start of the twenty-first century, lobbyists swarmed like locusts around legislators. According to journalist and author Thomas Franks, their reputation is “slightly better than the purse-snatcher’s.”
There can be no better example of how powerful corporate lobbyists have become than the way they were able to cripple global financial regulations, setting the conditions for the financial meltdown. Former IMF economist Simon Johnson believes that this should be seen as a “silent coup,” and he accuses a “whole generation of policy makers” of being “mesmerized by Wall Street, always and utterly convinced that whatever the banks said was true.”
The problem is not in the service provided by lobbyists—pleading the case of their clients to legislators—but how these representations have become irresistible when backed by money used to support expensive election campaigns and shower politicians with gifts, meals, and other favors. Johnson argues that it was “this confluence of campaign finance, personal connections and [free market] ideology” that led to “a river of deregulatory policies.”
In Washington in 2009, an estimated $2.5 billion was splashed around by lobbyists. It is the smell of all that delectable cash that bought the undivided attention of those on Capitol Hill. And the slick practices didn’t end there. According to Franks, “gifts and donations to pundits and journalists, the subsidies arranged for useful think tanks, the establishment of fake grassroots groups” compromise and often corrupt the political system.
The US is not alone in being plagued by swarms of lobbyists. In Europe there are around 15,000 lobbyists working the corridors of power in Brussels, with a budget of about €100 million. It is the same story in Canberra, Toronto, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, Seoul, and just about every major center where businesses look for favors or needs to ward off unwelcome regulations.
As international rule-making increased in importance, a new breed of lobbyists has appeared over the horizon. These international lobbyists often operate offshore: in Nairobi, London, Geneva, Washington, Paris, or in other cities where these agencies are headquartered. This means that their activities are often unobserved and unreported, providing them with unprecedented freedom from scrutiny that domestic lobbyists seldom enjoy.