It's a Company Town

Politics is the business of Washington-and lobbyists are the city's peddlars


The Washington, D.C., Yellow Pages directory weighs in at a hefty five pounds, thanks in large measure to some 350,000 area federal employees swelling local retail, service, and professional telephone listings and to listings for 1,625 "associations," apart from numerous listings for labor organizations and US government agencies. ("Washington offices" of corporate firms like IBM and General Foods, cities like Tucson and Detroit, and states like Wisconsin and Rhode Island are listed in the Washington "white pages" telephone directory.)

To me, yellow page after yellow page of "associations" stand as mute testimony to the unraveling of the limited government model set down by the Founding Fathers, evident in the flak taken by the Reagan tax-and-spending cut package. The Washington Yellow Pages provide an index to that remarkable unofficial fourth branch of the federal government that zoomed into high gear to beat back the Reagan menace: lobbies.

Why Washington? Well, these lobbies and special-interest organizations have apparently obeyed what could be called the Willie Sutton law on why he robbed banks—"because that's where the money is." Accordingly, lobbies have flocked to the nation's capital, seat of power, influence, and, of course, money. Money naturally galvanizes many a lobbyist, especially with tightening fiscal constraints. Said Aliceann Wohlbruck, a lobbyist for community-aid programs, to the Wall Street Journal after President Reagan's economic message to Congress: "We're scared to death." (Federal transfer payments, including grants-in-aid to states and localities and subsidies to farmers and others, are now running in the range of $400 billion annually.)

Apart from the Yellow Pages, the lobbies-Washington symbiosis is evident from the fact that the median family income in Washington now stands as tops among the nation's 20 largest metropolitan areas, according to Census Bureau figures. The symbiosis is also evident in downtown Washington and out to its outer hub, with a building boom unrivaled in the country. Office buildings and shopping centers are sprouting up all over the place, with such newcomers as Mobil Oil and Time Books, Neiman-Marcus and Bloomingdale's.

It is also much evident in the Washington Yellow Pages. Those pages, for example, give notice of the American Meat Institute (a recent migrant from Chicago) and the National Association of Manufacturers (a recent migrant from New York), along with the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers, the National Association of Mirror Manufacturers, the National Association of Name Plate Manufacturers and so on and so on.

Then there are the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, the National Association of State Units on Aging, and the National Association of the Deaf. Lobbies all.

There are also telephone listings for the National Apartment Association and the National Association of Neighborhoods, the National Asphalt Pavement Association, and the National Architectural Accrediting Board. Naturally, there are also the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Broiler Council and the National Bowling Council, the National Crushed Stone Association and the National Audubon Society, the National Swimming Pool Institute and the National Solid Wastes Management Association, the National Sheriffs' Association and the National Italian American Foundation.

These and many other lobbies cluster around Capitol Hill like ants around an ant hill, scurrying, buttonholing, importuning, occasionally giving testimony, always currying favor to preserve or augment their place in the sun if not their share of all those lovely federal spending goodies threatened of late by the budget-cutters' ax. So it was that the din of lobbyists in the lobbies (from whence they derived their name), offices, and hearing rooms atop the Hill rose to a veritable roar in the hour of line-by-line haggling over the federal budget for fiscal year 1982.

Many of these lobbyists are registered under the Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946, which not only requires registration but regular financial reports to Congress from organizations and agents seeking to influence federal legislation. These organizations and agents are legion. In one way or another they represent practically everybody in the country (to my knowledge, hobos are not represented), justifying Voltaire's observation that the art of government is to take from some to give to others—which nowadays seems to mean to take from everybody to give to everybody. (New York economist A. Gary Shilling notes that the number of Americans now dependent on government pay, pensions, welfare aid, or other forms of income, including government supplier income, rose from 36.7 percent in 1960 to 50.2 percent in 1979.)

Lobbying is as ancient as government, of course. Plato admonished governors always to "give prompt audience to all comers," but he bewailed the "fawning speeches and witcheries of supplication" used to sway the judgment of the Athenian Senate. Senators accepting bribes, he maintained, should be subject to the death penalty forthwith.

In his Federalist Papers No. 10, James Madison also bemoaned contentious self-serving "factions" so full of "specious declamations" and insisted on the Bill of Rights to strengthen the limitation of government. He especially worried about "a landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests."

Obviously and most visibly these special interests have proliferated in the nation's capital like rabbits. But these particular rabbits are not always peaceful and nonvituperative as they pull this way and that. There are some 200 labor lobbies listed in the Washington Yellow Pages, for example, generally pulling one way, while more than 500 corporate lobbies are generally pulling another. There are a dozen or so gun lobbies—some for gun ownership, some for gun control. Some lobbying groups are antiabortion, others are prochoice.

The great bulk of lobbies do agree on one thing, however—more money from Uncle Sam. So the Hill gets to be quite a pressure cooker from myriad campaigns, opposing views, and cries of "Gimme."

Yet rightly, it seems to me, lobbies come under the protection of the First Amendment guaranteeing the right of petition. Petition is especially necessary in these days of big government. The endless detail and iffy trade-offs of big government baffle legislator and bureaucrat alike. As then-Senator Edmund Muskie declared: "We depend on the information and points of view of organizations and individuals to help make decisions. We could not properly function without lobbying."

But petition also can lead to abuse, both on the part of the petitioner and the petitioned. Indeed, we might well ask whether the trouble isn't that there are lobbyists but that politicians are so yielding to special interests, thus abdicating their responsibility to serve the public interest. Is it any wonder that lobbies have multiplied on the face of the nation's capital?

The durability of lobbies cannot be seriously questioned in this age of unlimited government. They are certain to outlast both the Reagan administration and the new 97th Congress. As Forrest Rettgers of the National Association of Manufacturers remarked: "On the Hill today there are no longer permanent friends and enemies. There are only permanent interests."

How much of the stated aim of the Reagan administration to diminish the scope of government will get through Congress and the fourth branch of the federal government—through what President Reagan has called the "political gauntlet of interest groups"? Given the propensity of politicians to serve special interests, the Washington Yellow Pages give a clue that doesn't look all that favorable.

William Peterson is the director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.