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The Censure Case of Hiram Bingham of Connecticut (1929)

Photo of Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut

Hiring a lobbyist who was still being paid by a manufacturing organization.

Testimony to subcommittee: Oct. 17, 1929
Committee report: Oct. 26, 1929
Senate vote: Nov. 4, 1929

Result: Censured

Although Congress frequently debated lobbying regulation starting in 1911, it passed no legislation on the subject, and in the 1920s lobbyists' influence continued to concern members of Congress. In April 1929, Arkansas senator Thaddeus H. Caraway (Democrat) proposed creation of a committee to investigate the excesses of lobbyists. Persuaded by Caraway and Judiciary Committee chairman George Norris (Republican-NE), the Senate authorized Norris to appoint a subcommittee of Judiciary to investigate lobbyists' activities.

On October 15, 1929, the subcommittee, chaired by Caraway, began its public hearings. Although Connecticut senator Hiram Bingham's (Republican) name had not been mentioned in the investigation, he volunteered to appear before the panel on October 17, 1929, in order to defend his former staff member, Charles L. Eyanson. Newspaper stories had focused on the impropriety of Bingham using government funds to hire someone who was also an employee of the Manufacturers' Association of Connecticut, a well-known lobbying group.

Statement of the Case
Under Caraway's questioning, Bingham, a member of the Finance Committee who had served in the Senate since 1924, testified that he had asked the manufacturers' association to "loan" him Eyanson for his expertise during hearings on tariff legislation. The arrangement, he explained, was for the association to continue paying Eyanson's salary. When the Republican members of the Finance Committee began meeting in closed session to consider tariff proposals, Bingham had asked his principal clerk to formally resign his Senate post temporarily while continuing his duties and receiving his salary. Eyanson was then sworn in as an official Senate employee in the clerk's place, so that he could attend the closed sessions. He did not retain his Senate salary, however, but passed it along to the regular clerk. Bingham coolly defended this arrangement, asserting that he depended on Eyanson solely for professional advice and that he never considered him a lobbyist in the usual sense of the word, which Bingham defined as "going around visiting congressmen and senators and trying to get them to do something they did not want to do."

The investigating committee felt differently, and under persistent questioning by the members, Bingham acknowledged that he had perhaps made "a mistake" in hiring Eyanson and taking him into the closed meetings without telling the other senators that he was an employee of the Connecticut Manufacturers' Association. For his part, Charles Eyanson had difficulty giving a clear answer to repeated questions regarding whom he represented during the month he was on the payroll of both the U.S. Senate and the manufacturers' association. "Until I reported to Senator Bingham I would be a representative of the Manufacturers' Association," he explained, "... but actually I did not represent the association after I went with Senator Bingham. I represented Senator Bingham."

Citing "extraordinary circumstances," the committee issued a preliminary report dealing just with the Eyanson matter before it had completed its lobbying investigation. Dated October 26, 1929, the report questioned the propriety of Bingham taking Eyanson into the closed meetings. When the Manufacturers' Association of Connecticut obtained information about the secret committee proceedings, the implication, while not proved, was that the information could only have come from Eyanson. Although the committee's report condemned Bingham's arrangement with Eyanson, it presented no formal charges against the senator and made no recommendation for censure.

Response of the Senate
In submitting the report to the Senate on October 26, Caraway denounced the association between the senator and the lobbyist in stronger terms than were used in the report, but he still introduced no resolution for censure or other Senate action against Bingham. Two days later, however, Bingham, in defending his conduct, attacked the investigation as partisan and unfair. He claimed that Judiciary Committee chairman George Norris, a progressive Republican, had stacked the special committee with opponents of the Hoover administration who disagreed with the Connecticut senator's support for administration policies. On November 1, calling Bingham's comments about the committee members "discourteous," Norris introduced a resolution to censure Bingham for behavior "contrary to good morals and senatorial ethics" that tended "to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."

The floor debate took place on November 4, 1929. Bingham, who had had a distinguished career as an explorer and historian of South America before entering politics, once again boldly defended himself and Charles Eyanson, denying any intentional wrongdoing. The debate eventually concluded with Norris expressing discouragement that the senator from Connecticut had "never yet grasped the fact that the action he took was injurious to the honor and dignity of the Senate, was injurious to public sentiment and to public opinion." Finally, after amending the resolution to state that Bingham had no corrupt motives, the Senate censured the Connecticut senator. In the 54-to-22 vote that broke along regional lines, 22 fellow Republicans from midwestern and western states abandoned their political colleague and voted with Democrats for censure, while northeastern Republicans supported Bingham.

Bingham remained unconvinced that he had done anything ethically wrong. Two days after the censure debate, he returned to the Senate floor to take part in the tariff debate. He continued to serve in the Senate until March 1933, losing a bid for reelection in 1932. Subsequently, Bingham headed corporations, became an aviation lobbyist, wrote history books, and instructed naval officers during World War II. He died in 1956.

Over the next decades, Congress continued to discuss ways to regulate lobbying, which proved difficult to accomplish because of the First Amendment right of citizens to petition their government. Focusing therefore on disclosure rather than on actual regulation of lobbyists' activities, Congress in the 1930s passed bills requiring registration by lobbyists for public utilities, shipping firms, and foreign agents. In 1946, as part of that year's Legislative Reorganization Act, it adopted the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, requiring those hired to lobby to register with Congress.

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.