February 26, 2012

Hotel That Helped Coin The Term “Lobbyist” Still A Major Venue For Influence Peddling

Hotel That Helped Coin The Term "Lobbyist" Still A Major Venue For Influence PeddlingIn the 19th Century, the term lobbyist was popularized to describe the professional political influence peddlers. As the story goes, President Ulysses S. Grant would often relax at the Willard InterContinental Washington, a Washington D.C. hotel. People hoping to gain special favors would stand in the hotel lobby, hoping to speak with Grant. Since Grant referred to these individuals as “lobbyists,” the term caught on.

The same hotel, the Willard InterContinental Washington, is still a regular venue for politicians to meet with corporate representatives seeking favors. According to the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Party Time blog, both Democrats and Republicans have hosted fundraisers with corporate political action committees at the hotel. On Friday, the Republic Report noted that a bipartisan group of governors met with corporate lobbyists and the Obama administration at the Willard to discuss a new trade deal. Considering the $1,500 entrance fee, the event was far from inclusive.

There are, of course, competing theories about the origins of the term “lobbyist.” Essayist H.L. Mencken described the influence peddlers in Albany as “lobby-agents,” and the term was later shortened to lobbyists. Jeffrey Birnbaum, a journalist who once covered K Street and now, ironically, works at a lobbying firm, wrote that the word lobbyist probably originates with British writers who stood in the lobbies of the House of Commons, waiting to speak to politicians.