How Lobbying Works – Part Three – A Reluctance to Regulate
In Part Two of How Lobbying Works, Henry Vespa looked at some of the lobbying related scandals that have surfaced over the years. In the conclusion to his series, he turns his eye to regulation.
There’s probably not a single bill passing through any legislature that doesn’t have some interested body pushing for or against it. Like it or not, lobbying seems to be an integral (or at least, integrated) part of the democratic mode of government. If it were to be somehow excised from the process of debating and passing new legislation (and repealing the old) then the lawmakers’ decisions may be less subject to external influence but they would also be significantly less informed. After all, what government or political party has the time or resources to conduct studies and information gathering on every topic? Lobbyists fulfil a needed role; the way in which they perform that role may be flawed and the information and advice they provide may be tainted with self-interest but to remove them would create a vacuum difficult to fill.
So what’s left? If the system cannot live without lobbying then maybe the answer is regulation, control; a leash.
Surprisingly, although the U.S. is the country that springs to mind when we think of all the worst aspects of lobbying, it’s also the country with the most stringent regulations. Professional lobbyists are required to disclose whom they are lobbying for, whom they are lobbying to, and – crucially – how much is being spent. There are strict rules about what can and can’t be done but, as with any regulations, there are some gray areas. For example, a lobbyist is regulated but a “strategic advisor” is not; yet in terms of job description, they may be hard to tell apart. And when you get into issues around raising finance for election campaigns, the lines can be very blurred indeed.
In the opinion (and experience) of Jack Abramoff – ex-lobbyist, ex-con – most of the regulations can be sidestepped in some way. He points out, for example, that buying a representative lunch may be against the rules, but organizing a perfectly legitimate fundraising dinner for him will not only give the lobbyist the same access that the lunch would, but also put tens of thousands of dollars in the representative’s campaign coffers.
At the other end of the spectrum, the UK is little better off. Following a few newsworthy cash-for-services and alleged conflict of interest cases that between them implicated most of the political spectrum in mid-2013, new legislation was rushed to Parliament. At the time of writing, the bill is still being debated after the summer recess and is stirring up some media frenzy. The first criticism is that the provisions don’t go far enough. Only bodies that are paid to lobby on behalf of a third party will be required to register; this pretty much lets any large organization with its own lobbying team employed in-house off the hook. In other words precisely those organizations that invest the most in lobbying activities. Secondly, registered lobbyists only need to declare their client list. Nowhere will the proposed register show which government officials are having dealings with lobbyists, nor which issues, bills and policies are receiving lobbying attention. So, a detail-free list of a fraction of the UK lobbying industry then. As if that were not enough, the original bill also contrives to effectively limit or even prevent charities from having input to the legislative process (in other words, it penalises most strongly the more benign elements in the lobbying sector) and also encompasses trade union contributions to party funding. Needless to say, as it limps through the Houses, there is much backtracking and rewriting under way.
Maybe at the heart of this inability (or reluctance) to effectively regulate lobbying is the fact that politicians and lobbyists are in a virtually symbiotic relationship. Referred to in the U.S. as the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon, politicians go on to become lobbyists and vice versa. Likewise in the UK, both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are both ex-lobbyists, the Deputy PM’s wife is still a lobbyist, and so on. The fact is, politicians tend to be closer to the lobbyists than to the populace they allegedly represent. It begs the question: whose interests are they more likely to pay heed to?