As calls for “lobbying reform” resound through the halls of Congress this spring, we do well to remember this piece of wisdom from Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Influence peddling, lobbying scandals, and the reporters and newspapers that expose them, have been a part of American political life since the beginning.
We asked Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington and our media columnist, to list the 10 most scandalously muckraking stories in American history. He presents them here in non-partisan, chronological order.
Top Ten Congressional Lobbying Scandals in US History
1. 1857, the New York Times published an expose of lobbying for the Pacific Railroad bill, charging that lobbyists had shaped a bill in order to pillage federal lands. The House opened an investigation that led four representatives to resign (the House also expelled from its galleries the Times reporter who broke the story).
2. 1872, the New York Sun exposed the Credit Mobilier scandal, where a railroad lobbyist provided stock to members of Congress to make them more likely to increase appropriations for transcontinental railroad construction. Both the Senate and House investigated the charges, which ruined the careers of two vice presidents, a Speaker, and other members of both bodies.
3. 1906, Cosmopolitan magazine publishes David Graham Phillips’ series of muckraking exposes on the “Treason of the Senate,” in which he accused prominent senators of representing special interests rather than the public interest. The series contributes to political pressure that results in the Seventeenth Amendment requiring senators to be elected by the public rather than by state legislatures.
4. 1913, the New York World ran an expose of questionable tactics by a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers seeking to influence tariff rates. One member of the House resigned and the House passed a bill requiring lobbyists to register with Congress. The Senate declined to go along with the reform.
5. 1929, the New York World accused Connecticut Senator Hiram Bingham of bringing a paid agent for the Connecticut Manufacturers’ Association into closed committee meetings on a pending tariff bill. The Senate investigated and censured Bingham (previously prominent as the discoverer of Machu Picchu), who was then defeated for reelection.
6. 1962, a Des Moines Register correspondent reported that Senate Majority Secretary Bobby Baker accepted favors from lobbyists in exchange for providing access to powerful senators. A Senate committee investigated and Baker was later convicted of income tax evasion.
7. 1976, the Washington Post broke the story that the Justice Department was investigating South Korean agent Tongsun Park, who had distributed illegal gifts to members of Congress. Congressional investigation of “Koreagate” ended with the reprimand of three members of the House and the indictment of two others.
8. 1990, accounts in the Orange County Register, the Mesa [Arizona] Tribune, the Detroit News, the Los Angeles Times, the Arizona Republic, and the Wall Street Journal revealed that five senators met with the head of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board about the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, whose head, Charles H. Keating, Jr. had made substantial contributions to their political campaigns. The Senate Ethics Committee investigated the Keating Five, and reprimanded one of them, California Senator Alan Cranston.
9. 2005, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported a bribery scandal involving lobbyists’ gifts and payments to Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham that led to his resignation from Congress and criminal conviction.
10. 2005, Washington Post reporters revealed that Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was the central figure in a congressional corruption scandal, as Justice Department prosecutors investigated him for fraud and bribery allegations.
Check out Donald Ritchie’s newest post here.