How Lobbying Works Part I

November 7, 2013
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How Lobbying Works – Part One – An Undemocratic Influence?

We all like to think we know how a democratic government works. There are the three separate arms of government – executive, legislative and judicial (which of course, are never as separate as perhaps they should be) – and between them they take care of passing laws, enforcing them and generally dealing with the day to day administration of the country. And the key thing is, because these functions are carried out by our duly elected representatives, in theory the whole shebang is being run with our best interests in mind according to the mandate of the electoral majority.

However, once a representative – Member of Parliament, Senator, Congressman, what have you – is in place, he or she has a fairly safe job (as long as they’re not caught doing anything too illegal) until it’s re-election time and their decisions, actions and votes on key issues tend to be subject to all sorts of personal values, stances, whims and outside influences. Which is where lobbying comes in.

taking the money and run (for office)The image most of us have of a lobbyist is of a slick, suited type hanging around the halls of power seeking to influence the legislative process on behalf of ‘big business’. Rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly, it’s as widespread as democracy) the lobbying process is associated with the U.S. and Capitol Hill; a popular but erroneous story even attributes the term to the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. where President Ulysses S. Grant was bought many a drink in the hope of a favor in return. But, earlier mentions of the non-elected seeking parliamentary influence are recorded across the pond, and today Britain’s ‘influence industry’ is allegedly worth GBP 2bn. Maybe British lobbyists are more discrete or the British public more apathetic but unless there’s a current newsworthy scandal, most Britons barely take note of the existence of lobbying. Luckily for the national awareness, 2013 has seen some juicy examples of lobbying gone wrong and the hurried introduction of the so-called “anti-lobbying” bill to Parliament (who’s lobbying on behalf of that, one wonders?)

At its broadest, lobbying is any activity that seeks to influence officials in government. Religious groups seeking to derail same-sex marriage legislation? Lobbying. An environmental charity struggling to make the legislature aware of the dangers of global warming? Lobbying. Students marching to protest tuition fees? Technically, lobbying. A private citizen writing to their representative about local issues? Lobbying. The trouble is, in its broadest definition, lobbying includes pretty much any external input to the political process and given that we want our elected officials to be making informed decisions on our behalf then a blanket ban could be counter-productive. However, even if we ignore the small-scale local heroes and busybodies and tighten our focus to the larger-scale (and more influential) interests, there is still a broad moral spectrum to consider. After all, not every organization paying a professional to advocate on its behalf is as obviously self-interested as a tobacco company; professional lobbyists can also be found pushing for stronger human rights legislation, for example. The question is often one of ethics and ethics can be very subjective.

The main discomfort is that lobbying potentially involves others pulling the strings of government officials and that raises difficult questions about who’s really running a country. Even if some of it is for ‘good’ and even if all of it may be protected in principle as freedom of speech, on some deep, intuitive level the idea still runs counter to the idea of a democratically elected government.

In Part Two of How Lobbying Works, Henry Vespa takes a look at some of the lobbying related scandals that have surfaced over the years.

Part two of this article about How Lobbying Works is available here.

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