The (Exquisitely Abridged) History of Government Relations

So what is the legal basis for lobbying, the history of government relations, and just how important is brandy to it?

At one point in either your personal or professional life, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re going to find an obstacle that’s getting in the way of you achieving your goal. And at that point you’re going to utter those fateful words, There oughtta be a law… (or, of course, the flip-side argument which is, There shouldn’t be a law). Government relations advocacy, in a nutshell, is about convincing the dubious to get the gears of the bureaucracy churning in your direction.

It could mean having the Government put in place stronger laws (say, to protect kids’ online safety), eliminate outdated laws (like the telecom tax that helped pay off the Spanish-American War), or even forebear from legislating. Nevertheless, the success of each of these type of efforts rely on effective government relations advocacy. It all started with a problem that needed to be addressed and the will to get the job done.

The Basis for Government Relations

Soon after the last Union Jack had been struck down and replaced with Betsy Ross’ Stars and Stripes, the Founding Fathers set out to write the instruction manual for our nation, the U.S. Constitution. It was based essentially on two principles: thought from the Enlightenment and revulsion to what the British had done to its American colonies.

An integral part of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights lays out a series of what’s called ‘negative rights‘. What are they? They’re the things the government is prohibited from doing to its citizens because of the Rights that are inherent in all people, and not granted by the government. In the eyes of the drafters, the most important natural right to be protected for a successful democracy was that of free speech, as embodied by the First Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The part that government relations pros base their vocation on is the last line: to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. This means that everyone can exercise their Right of Free Speech by speaking with their elected and appointed governmental leaders in favor or opposition to any particular policy position.

Is Petitioning the Government Limited to People?

This has been a point of no small contention over the years. However, its widely (if not begrudgingly) accepted that corporations do have a right of free speech. Not to get to wonky (although this is a site for wonks), there’s been a few Supreme Court cases on this very issue.

In Buckley v. Valeo, the Court ruled that limitations on independent campaign expenditures by corporations were a violation of free speech. First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti reaffirmed that corporations had the right to free speech, just as individuals did. It said the Bank could spend money on state ballot initiatives, but did not grant them the right to support specific candidates.

The most recent case is Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. In it, the majority held that under the First Amendment, corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. The majority also maintained that political speech is indispensable to a democracy, which is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation

Think of it this way: while corporations are legally considered their own entities, they’re comprised of people. People who work for the company, which resides in communities of people, with their products and services being bought and sold by people. The corporation exists to serve its owners, employees, customers, and community. It needs to be able to speak out on what it believes to be in the best interest of those communities, and by extension, itself.

As noted above, this issue is not without its history of controversy. That said, we’re all here on this blog because we believe – in one way or another – in the exercise of that Right.

So Where Does the Term ‘Lobbying’ Come From?

There seems to be a bit of contention on where the term ‘lobbying’ comes from. A lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary has weighed in here. The OED asserts that lobbying takes its name from the lobbies or hallways of Parliament where MPs and peers gather before and after debates in the Commons and Lords chambers.

As a proud and patriotic American, I will closes my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and say the venerable OED is woefully mistaken. The real story is that the term came about from those lingering not in the hallowed halls of Congress or Parliament, but in Washington, D.C.’s exquisite Willard Hotel. Living there while the White House was being renovated, President Ulysses S. Grant was fond of enjoying his evening brandy and cigars in the grand foyer of the hotel. Learning this, political advocates would hang out waiting for the Prez in (wait for it) the lobby to get him to listen to their pleas.

So with the clink of a glass and a puff of blue smoke, an industry was born, named, and blamed by those who didn’t think of getting to the Willard first. It doesn’t matter that the OED found definitive and verifiable instances of the use of the term ‘lobbying’ well before Grant was born. I’m sticking with the General and his apocryphal story. Grant loved his brandy, his cigars, and his country, and that’s enough for me.


Check here for more discussion and tips on effective government relations, as well as info on a new web service we’re about to launch, DC Policy Shop, that can help make your voice heard in Washington, D.C.