Highlighted Site of the Week – Senator Byrd’s History of Lobbyists - State and Federal Communications

December 10, 2010  •  

Highlighted Site of the Week – Senator Byrd’s History of Lobbyists

U.S. Sen. Robert ByrdIn the 1980s, Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (who passed away last June) offered over 100 addresses about the history of the U.S. Senate. In honor of the Senate’s bicentennial, the speeches were gathered and edited into four volumes called The Senate: 1789–1989: Addresses on the History of the Senate.

Among those essays, there is a landmark work regarding the history of lobbyists and lobbying. The Senate’s Web site hosts the text of the speech at Senate.gov.

Senator Byrd’s speech whipsaws between praise and suspicion of lobbying and perhaps typifies America’s ambivalence toward the profession. He begins his speech with a quote from an 1869 newspaper article, which conjured the image of lobbying as a “dazzling reptile … a scaly serpent of the lobby…” Yet Byrd also acknowledges the necessary service they provide: “It should be clear from my remarks that Congress has always had, and always will have, lobbyists and lobbying. We could not adequately consider our work load without them.”

According to Senator Byrd, lobbying has been employed from the first days of Congress. “During the First Congress, Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay wrote in his diary that New York merchants employed ‘treats, dinners, attentions’ to delay passage of a tariff bill,” said Byrd.

A Vanity Fair picture of Sam Ward
Byrd’s speech is rich with history, describing efforts of groups such as the Bank of the United States in the 1790s, Samuel Colt in the 1850s, and the famous “King of the Lobby” Sam Ward during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

While Byrd did stress the need for government to be vigilant against the abuse of the democratic system by special interests, it would be wrong to think the senator was not sympathetic to the work of lobbyists, or appreciative.  He ended his speech with the following:

“They spend many hours and considerable shoe leather trying to convince 535 members of Congress of the wisdom or folly of certain legislation. They face vigorous competition. They still bear the brunt of press criticism and take the blame for the sins of a small minority of their numbers. But they have a job to do, and most of them do it very well indeed. It is hard to imagine Congress without them.”

For his many efforts to promote the history of the United States Senate, Senator Byrd received the American Historical Association‘s first Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Civil Service and the Friend of History Award from the Organization of American Historians.

For all of you arm-chair American historians, this Highlighted Site of the Week should make you smile. Give it a read!

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