How Lobbying Works Part II

November 7, 2013
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How Lobbying Works – Part Two – It’s a Regular Scandal

In Part One of How Lobbying Works, Henry Vespa discussed the arguably undemocratic influence of lobbying on government. In the second part of the series, be focusses on some of the lobbying related scandals that have surfaced over the years.

The one thing that lobbyists are not meant to do is hand over some form of direct payment or reward. The practice of lobbying has been a fairly inseparable part of democratic government for centuries because in principle, while the information (facts, research, opinion, rhetoric, etc.) provided by the lobbyist may be slanted toward a particular perspective, two things are a given: that information should be factual (although it’s too much to expect it to be complete) and ideally there should be no personal incentive for the elected official should they act upon it. In other words, lobbying should not descend into bribery; although depending on a country’s regulations, gifts may be allowed subject to stringent rules and disclosure requirements.

Of course, human nature being what it is, the political histories of all democratic countries are littered with cash-filled brown envelopes exchanging hands and under-the-counter business dealings. No wonder most of us would count our fingers after shaking hands with a politician. But it’s interesting that when these scandals come to light, most of the mud tends to stick to the elected representative and not to the lobbyist who dangled the carrot in the first place.

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That said, in one of the biggest U.S. lobbying scandals in recent years (which came to light in 2005-06), the mud hit the lobbyists fair and square. Jack Abramoff and others were representing the interests of Native American gambling interests. When everything came to trial, it turned out that not only had Abramoff & co. outright bribed public officials, but they’d also hugely overbilled the client (a total of around US$85m in fees) and even secretly lobbied against the clients’ interests in order to increase their fears and keep the fees coming. In politics and public opinion, however, nothing sticks forever. After a guilty plea and a stint in prison, Abramoff has since featured as the media’s go-to guy for commentary on the lobbying industry. Go figure.

The UK lobbying scene hardly appears any cleaner. Promises of regulatory legislation originally made by the coalition government in 2010 were hurriedly taken off the shelf mid-2013 and dusted down after three House of Lords peers were suspended amid allegations of cash for services. Around the same time, Lynton Crosby, the man in charge of the Tory party’s election campaign and also founder of a successful lobbying firm came under fire for allegedly advising private clients on issues to which he might have access as a Tory advisor. It’s fair to say that the Prime Minister also caught some flak for allowing a professional lobbyist such easy access to Downing Street.

Still, perhaps it’s hardly surprising that politicians might be seduced in such a fashion. Switching back to the States, a recent study showed that between 1998 and 2005, 43 percent of representatives leaving Congress moved into professional lobbying positions, capitalizing on the connections and influence from their political roles. No actual money need change hands during the term of office; if there’s the promise of a million-dollar-a-year job at the end of it, how disinterested can an official be?

Still, what can we expect? As Hermann Hesse once wrote of the bourgeois, “he has substituted …the polling booth for responsibility.” In the modern day Western-style democracy, we’re all the bourgeoisie (or strongly encouraged to be) and we’ve handed over the keys by putting an ‘X’ next to the candidate of our choice. Sadly, those we elect are often inexperienced and untutored in how to manage the responsibility we’ve delegated. Is it really that surprising that there are professional opportunists only too happy to offer suggestions?

In Part Three of How Lobbying Works, Henry Vespa concludes his series by concentrating on regulation.

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

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