Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Why There is No Good History of Lobbying

Anne Applebaum's op-ed piece Lobbygate Deja Vu takes us over to the UK for historical parallels and only back a decade. Curious how there is no ready reference to bribery scandals in Washington. Perhaps it has to do with congressmen's seemingly inexhaustible ability to stage their shock in the face of a bribe. Early in its institutional history Congress took so high a ground when faced with a bribe that it's been flooded with lobbyists ever since. Witness the high dudgeon in 1817 when a Col. John Anderson tried to get Congress to compensate settlers in the Michigan Territory for damages caused by the British during the War of 1812. Rep. Williams of North Carolina took the floor and stunned his colleagues:

"Mr. Speaker, I lay before the House a letter addressed and delivered to me by a person named Colonel John Anderson. That man has mistaken me much. Wherever I am known, this place or the country from whence I came, no attempt of the kind would have been made. I feel it is my duty to lay the letter and my statement thereon, made by myself, before the House. My feelings are too much excited, nor would it be my duty to make any remarks on the subject. It is for the House to determine what is to be done."

Then Williams read the letter in which Anderson offered him $500 "as part pay, for the extra trouble I give you; I will present it to you so soon as I receive some from the government...." You can read the rest of the letter at Annals of Congress . Of course Anderson asked that it be kept confidential but Williams immediately had several colleagues boarding with him read it. They all agreed that it must be made public, read in the House, and the Sergeant at Arms arrest Anderson and bring him to the House to be punished. That was done but eventually Anderson, a veteran after all, was let off with a reprimand.

The point I make in my on-line history of early Washington, The Seat of Empire, is that the principled stand Congress took in turning away a paltry $500, provided public cover for its embracing the web of influence that in the long run could make influential congressmen much more money. The favored method of bribery in that era was a loan that did not have to repaid.

This year's scandal features millions of dollars from Indian tribes protecting their casinos -- small beer compared to the big corporate gaming of the Washington swamp. High dudgeon once again will probably serve only as cover for the pervasive lowlife dealing.

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