Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Hiram Bingham: dodgy lobbying

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Like another Connecticut senator censured several decades after him, Hiram Bingham III's misdeeds ultimately amounted to little more than a blemish on a remarkable career. Indeed, Bingham's political service as a whole almost comes off as a footnote to his persona as an explorer, so prevalent that he is often cited as a possible inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.

The son of a Pacific missionary, Bingham was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in November of 1875. He grew up in the islands, attending the Punahou School and earning an undergraduate degree from Oahu College in 1892. From there, he went stateside to attend the Phillips Academy, Yale University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard University.

One of Bingham's first explorations came shortly after Bingham graduated from Harvard in 1906. The next year, he traveled the route set by Simon Bolivar from Venezuela to Colombia. In 1908, he explored an old Spanish trade route through the Andes and became a delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile. Bingham also went from student to teacher, working as a professor of history and politics at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton University.

Perhaps Bingham's greatest accomplishment came in 1911 during an expedition to find Vilcabamba, the "lost city of the Incas." The joint mission by Yale and the National Geographic Society instead uncovered the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. The notion that Bingham discovered the city has generally been toned down in more recent years. The German explorer Augusto Berns may have explored Machu Picchu as early as 1867, and a Peruvian Indian who offered to act as a guide was the one who led Bingham's team there. However, Bingham was the first person to make a scientific study of the site, with follow-up expeditions in 1912 and 1915. Bingham's claim that Machu Picchu was the Vilcabamba site was not debunked until the middle of the 20th century. However, Bingham's trips also uncovered the nearby settlements of Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa, with archaeologist Gene Savoy determining in 1964 that the latter site was the likely Vilcabamba site.

World War I was already underway in Europe at the time of these expeditions, and Bingham may have foreseen American involvement in the conflict. He became a captain in the Connecticut National Guard in 1916, and when the United States declared war on the Central Powers in the spring of 1917 he became an aviator and organized the United States Schools of Military Aeronautics. He served in the Signal Corps, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel, and oversaw the flying school at Issoudun, France, from August to December in 1917.

Bingham's political career began in 1922, when he became the lieutenant governor of Connecticut. He held this position through 1924, the year he was elected governor of the state. This election took place just weeks after the suicide of Frank B. Brandegee, who had represented the state in the Senate since 1905. Bingham ran as the Republican in the special election held in December to fill the vacancy and won, committing him to the remainder of the Senate term ending in March of 1927. The curious circumstances meant Bingham would serve less than a day as Connecticut's governor before resigning, taking up his Senate duties and turning the governor's role over to Lieutenant Governor John Harper Trumbull.

President Calvin Coolidge appointed him a member of his Aircraft Board in 1925. Bingham also chaired the Committee on Printing and the Committee on Territories and Insular Possessions during his time in Congress. He continued his travels while in politics, including a 1927 trip to China during a war in that country that left him robbed of his money and camera.

Starting in April of 1929, a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee began investigating lobbying activities among members. Concerns about this activity had been increasing in the early 20th century, with proposed regulations ongoing since 1911. Although Bingham was not immediately subject to the investigation, he volunteered to defend his own lobbyist, Charles L. Eyanson. He began giving testimony in October of 1929.

Bingham told the subcommittee members that Eyanson was initially on "loan" from the Manufacturer's Association of Connecticut to assist with tariff legislation. Although Eyanson continued to receive a salary from the lobbying group, Bingham also set up an arrangement where he became an official Senate employee as well. As Republican members of the Finance Committee began meeting in private on the tariff proposals, Bingham asked his principal clerk to formally resign his post. Although he would continue to perform his duties and receive his salary, Eyanson was sworn in as an official employee in the clerk's place so he would be able to attend the closed sessions. Eyanson was paid a salary for this new role, but passed it on to the regular clerk.

The investigators were taken aback by how much involvement in Senate affairs Bingham had allowed Eyanson to have. Even Eyanson was unsure who he answered to during this period. "Until I reported to Senator Bingham I would be a representative of the Manufacturers' Association...but actually I did not represent the association after I went with Senator Bingham. I represented Senator Bingham," he testified. Under questioning, Bingham admitted that he should have let other senators know about the arrangement. When the subcommittee issued its report at the end of the month, it was critical of Bingham's actions but made no recommendation of censure. Senator Thaddeus H. Caraway, an Arkansas Democrat who first proposed the subcommittee, offered stronger criticism on the Senate floor but also didn't recommend any formal punishment.

Bingham, however, had strong words for those who spoke against him. In remarks on the Senate floor, he accused of the subcommittee of being biased and partisan, saying Judiciary Committee chairman George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska, stacked the subcommittee with people opposed to the policies of President Herbert Hoover, which Bingham supported. He complained that he was being framed and was the victim of a "modern Spanish Inquisition." The rant also implied that one senator on the subcommittee used a Capitol policeman to chauffeur him to his distant state. John J. Blaine, a Wisconsin Republican, sensed he was being targeted and demanded that Bingham named the accused; Bingham promptly confirmed that he was referring to Blaine. He continued to rail against the subcommittee, saying it used the methods of a criminal court to try to catch him in a contradiction and issued an inaccurate final report. "I had not supposed that there was no much unfairness in a group of senators," he said. "I had not supposed that for political purposes, to damage a New England senator and a friend of the administration, that they would go so far as they did."

The senators had not expected such a heated reaction, and they responded in kind. In November, Norris introduced a resolution seeking censure against Bingham for actions "contrary to good morals and senatorial ethics" that tended "to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute." Norris said that throughout the debate over Eyanson's role in the Senate, Bingham "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." Blaine described Bingham's defense of his actions as akin to those made by the accused in the recent Teapot Dome Scandal, accused Bingham of having a seniority complex, and described the arrangement with Eyanson as a "dirty, slimy deal." Caraway challenged any of the Republican senators to defend Bingham; the GOP side of the chamber remained silent. Although the resolution was amended to specify that Bingham never had corrupt motives, the final vote approved the censure 54-22.

Lobbying legislation would be slow to arrive. During the 1930s, Congress finally passed bills requiring registration by lobbyists in the fields of public utilities, shipping firms, and foreign agents. It was not until 1946 that the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, adopted as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act, would require all lobbyists to register with Congress. By that time, Bingham was long gone from the body. He lost his bid for re-election in 1932, a defeat he blamed on Prohibition advocates after supporting a repeal that ultimately did not appear on the platform in Hoover's own failed re-election bid.

After leaving the Senate, Bingham worked in the banking industry and wrote history books. He was a strong opponent of Hoover's successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his New Deal plan, saying the federal government was "trying to become a dictatorship." In a dramatic breakup in 1937, his wife of 37 years filed for divorce and accused Bingham of mental cruelty. She said he would enthusiastically greet the family's two dogs while acknowledging her presence only with a "kind of grunt." Bingham announced he would remarry only three months later, to Suzanne Carroll Hill (a descendant of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll). He also engaged in lobbying of his own, promoting the aviation industry in Washington, D.C., and later served as the vice president of the Coleman Oil Company.

During the Second World War, Bingham lectured at naval training schools. President Harry Truman later appointed him chairman of the Civil Service Commission's Loyalty Review Board, a role Bingham held from 1951 to 1953. Truman founded the loyalty program in 1947, and although government agencies had their own boards to review Federal Bureau of Investigation findings on employee loyalty, the 12-member Loyalty Review Board was an entity employees could appeal to if they were found disloyal and fired. Bingham's appointment was a handy way of countering Republican accusations that Truman's administration was harboring disloyal employees.

Bingham died in Washington, D.C. of a respiratory ailment in June of 1956. His son, Jonathan Brewster Bingham, would also go into politics. He would serve as the United States delegate to four General Assemblies of the United Nations as well as a Democrat in the House of Representatives from 1965 to 1983.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, National Governors Association, The United States Senate Historical Office, Encyclopedia Britannica, "Lost City of Incas a Wonderful Ruin" in the New York Times on Jan. 1 1914, "Resigns to Become Senator" in the Lawrence Journal-World on Jan. 8 1925, "Bingham's Car Plundered on Return From Battle Front" in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Jun. 1 1927, "Senator Bingham Roundly Scored on Senate Floor" in the Telegraph-Herald on Oct. 28 1929, "Glass Assails New Deal Tax 'Tyranny'" in the Evening Independent on Jul. 18 1936, "Divorce is Granted Mrs. Hiram Bingham" in the Meriden Daily Journal on Mar. 27 1937, "Hiram Bingham to Wed Mrs. Hill" in the New York Times on Jun. 26 1937, "U.S. Loyalty and Security Risks Involve Different Procedures" in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Jul. 24 1951, "Ex.-Sen. Bingham of Connecticut Dies in Capital" in the St. Petersburg Times on June 7 1956, "Hiram Bingham 'Discovers' Machu Picchu" in Wired on Jul. 24 2008