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Senators Disclose Finances

June 2, 1913

Portrait of President Woodrow Wilson

On May 26, 1913, newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson warned the nation of the "extraordinary exertions" that lobbyists were making to kill his tariff reform legislation. Washington, he observed, "has seldom seen so numerous, so industrious, or so insidious a lobby. It is of serious interest to the country that the people at large should have no lobby and be voiceless in these matters, while great bodies of astute men seek to create an artificial opinion and to overcome the interests of the public for their private profit."

For the first time in 18 years, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. President Wilson had made tariff reduction his top legislative priority. When the House easily approved the administration's bill, opponents believed they could stop it in the Senate, where Democrats held only a three-vote majority. This triggered the fierce lobbying campaign that so alarmed the president.

Within a week of the president's warning, on June 2, 1913, the Senate launched a formal investigation of the president's charges, instructing the Judiciary Committee "to report within ten days the names of all lobbyists attempting to influence such pending legislation and the methods which they have employed to accomplish their ends."

In its first twentieth-century step toward public financial disclosure, the Senate required all of its members to explain under oath whether they had assets that might benefit from passage of any currently pending legislation. For six days, from morning to late evening, senators in groups of four paraded before a special Judiciary subcommittee to answer 11 prearranged questions. Humor and irony enriched their responses as members denied any dealings with "insidious" lobbyists. While the subcommittee struggled to define a "lobbyist," insidious or otherwise, Republicans joked that they had found one in President Wilson. Why not subpoena him to explain rumors that he planned to deny presidential patronage to Democrats who voted against the administration?

Proving that there is nothing so easy to start, or so difficult to end, as a congressional investigation, the "lobby committee" moved quickly from media frenzy to quiet obscurity, as it shifted its attention from 96 senators to scores of lobbyists in the weeks ahead. Although no "improper influences" were discovered, by temporarily weakening lobbying pressures on senators, this unique investigation gave Woodrow Wilson his first important legislative victory when Congress enacted the lower tariff rates he had championed.