THE SENATE has passed a bill requiring Washington lobbyists to register. Now we'll know how many there are.
Maybe. There already is a law requiring them to register, and nobody knows how many there are. The range of estimates is wide. President Clinton recently used the figure 80,000. Where did that come from? James Thurber made it up.
Now that's not James Thurber the late humorist and cartoonist. It is James Thurber the professor of government at American University. In 1991, Jeffrey Birnbaum, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was doing an article on lobbyists. He asked Professor Thurber how many were there. Thurber said, "Jeff, I don't know. Sixty thousand. Seventy thousand. I'm sure 80 is a reasonable figure."
"Later," Mr. Thurber said in a recent interview with another journalist, "I got worried about it because I did it off the top of my head." And because so many other experts were deriding that figure as much too high. Only 13,500 people list themselves in the publication "Washington Representatives." Only 6,085 are registered with the House of Representatives as lobbyists.
Thurber recalculated, more systematically this time, and came up with -- 91,000! That includes all persons who spend even a portion of their time trying to influence government -- and their clerical and other support staff, even cooks and maids.
The old law requires only those who work full time as lobbyists to register. The Senate-passed new version, written by Carl Levin of Michigan and William Cohen of Maine, requires all lobbyists to register -- and to make public their clients and the members of Congress and congressional staff they contact.
Senator Levin touted his bill at the 35th anniversary dinner of the Citizens' Research Foundation last week. CRF is the premier entity studying "political money" -- dough spent to elect and influence officials.
One other senator spoke. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He got the biggest laugh of the night with an old but beloved Washington insider joke.
McConnell said that lobbyists should never underestimate the importance of staff. Nor should senators. A Senate aide he knew once went to a senator with a tale of a growing family and thus financial needs. He asked for a raise. The senator ignored his sad tale and brusquely demanded, "Where's that speech I told you to write?"
The aide said he'd just about finished, left then came back with the reading text. The senator stuffed it in his briefcase and rushed off to his home state to speak.
He arrived at the affair and began reading the speech -- to an audience of Very Important People -- for the first time:
"I'm here tonight to tell you I have worked out solutions for the major problems facing us on the environment, foreign policy, taxes, civil rights. First, I propose . . ." He turned to page 2, where he saw, "You're on your on, you son of a bitch! I quit!"