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Lobbyists

The job of the lobbyist can be said to be the art of persuasion. Lobbyists have been around since mankind has lived in organized societies, but only in the nineteenth century was the term been used to describe someone who wants to convince someone else to take certain actions. Coined to describe people who buttonholed members of the British parliament in the hallways of the Palace of Westminster the word now has an American application. The British don’t use this term anymore, but the whole world understands its meaning. A lobbyist is commonly described as someone who tries to influence legislation on behalf of a special interest. The job of the lobbyist is to lay out information and advocate change to public officials, whether appointed or elected on the behalf of their clients. The range of clients that they represent is very wide. Political pressure groups, companies or corporations, charities and non-profit organizations, business associations or trade unions can all use lobbyists to further their own interests. Lobbying as professional employment has mushroomed over the last twenty years or so. This is probably due to two factors: the growth of government and the growth of the media industry. As government makes incursions into more and more aspects of people’s lives they see that they have the right to challenge or change those policies. With the growth of the media through print, TV and now the internet, special interest groups can now bring pressure to bear on the legislators indirectly, but just as effectively as with personal contact. Unfortunately, the whole business raises questions of ethics and morality.

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Lobbying is generally seen as wide open to corruption and inequalities. Minority causes won’t fare well against popular legislation unless they can persuade public opinion to back them and that usually needs financial support and professional help. Compared to corporations who have deep pockets the inequalities of this kind of advocacy seem very one-sided.

Who are the lobbyists?

There isn’t an actual profession for lobbyists. Although there are many professional lobbyists it isn’t an actual profession that is studied for, such as a doctor or lawyer. Some people become lobbyists because they understand the cause or industry that the client wishes to promote, and are of a persuasive nature. This would be more the case for charities or other types of other non-profit organizations that can’t afford highly paid full time staff. In the United States most of the lobbying is managed by law firms who recruit and train young graduates to be advocates for their clients. There is a small group of firms that do most of the important lobbying. Lobbyists need to have good social skills and knowledge of legislative procedures. There isn’t any one direct route to becoming a lobbyist, in reality anyone with a passionate interest in an issue or cause can become one. Anyone seeking this type of employment can simply apply to the companies that offer lobbying services. The United States require that all lobbyists be registered and the industry is regulated with a set of rules that levy penalties to those that infringe them, up to and including prison terms. In Britain lobbyists don’t use that name to describe their work; lobbying comes under the banners of public affairs, public relations or political consultancy. Many of the professional lobbyists in reality are ‘special advisers’ hired by the members of parliament as members of their staff and paid for out of taxpayers money. They are recruited because of their knowledge or backgrounds in certain issues or industries. As they play a double role they are open to charges of conflict of interest. Because of these concerns an inquiry by the Public Administration Select Committee was set up and in 2009 came back with the recommendation to register all lobbyists and regulate lobbying activity, but so far no government has bothered to follow up on those recommendations.

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The lobbyist group 'The National Association of Realtors' headquarters.

What they do

The activity of lobbying doesn’t just involve being persuasive and generally good humored. The lobbyist has to know what they are talking about, they have to have a comprehensive knowledge of the issues that they are campaigning for or against, and that means a lot of research on the subject as well as attending meetings and hearings. They also have to understand the political consequences of government policies and be able to educate and advise officials. Another way that they can work is through public advertising campaigns to build public support and put pressure on elected legislators. Many of the political advocacy groups in the United States are now using internet technology to raise awareness of particular interests or simply campaigning for votes. They target people of a geographical area based on certain criteria which they believe will be receptive to their message. Also they are using mobile apps too. Lobbying has become quite diverse and the targets of lobbying have become greater with the expansion of government over time. In America some pressure groups use the courts to put their cause on the public record and in the public eye by filing briefs in trials and hearings that focus on their issue. These are called Amines Curiae and are accepted by the courts. Activists of different causes may resort to blatant lobbying through publicity stunts that attract the attention of the media. These can be considered outside lobbying and are usually about organizing large groups of people into demonstrations or public relations campaigns.

Who they represent

There is an almost infinite variety of entities and groups that lobby to change political policies, whether or not those policies are already on the statute books or are in the process of becoming law. Some clients of the lobbyists are companies or corporations that simply want more favorable conditions in which to improve their profits margins. Within the industry these are considered as single issue clients as their concerns are narrowly focused. A study done in 2011 with a list of the strongest companies that spend millions actively lobbying the U.S. Congress stated that all the money was well spent in terms of end profits. On the other hand there are labor unions, trade associations or business organizations which lobby on behalf of various issues. Among any of these organizations there are many causes for lobbying. They are termed multiple issue clients and are basically seen as more flexible as they are on the whole more willing to negotiate policy changes than demand total exclusions or complete changes. Many industries like agriculture have their own special interests and farming unions actively lobby politicians as a matter of course. The environmental lobby is an example of diverse groups of activists coming together under one umbrella issue and becoming powerful through political activity and popular support. Some lobbyists serve pressure groups that campaign on moral issues like the pro and anti-abortion lobbies. These groups tend to use both inside and outside lobbying to gain support for their cause. Firms that lobbyists professionally may also take on causes for free, to help groups that have no financial backing but have what they see as a significant issue. Many of these campaigns are born out of tragedy and are deemed to have widespread support.

The growth of lobbying

The growth of lobbying can be seen as the direct result of the expansion of governments. As people demand more official protections the political sphere tends to interfere more in the daily lives of people through legislation. This in turn triggers the need for amendments or changes to policies. Not all policies are perfect and some groups feel persecuted or that they live under unequal conditions. These issues can be economic, moral or social. One example of this growth is the European Union. Since its conception it has been changing and expanding continually. It has added layers and layers of bureaucracy as more and more countries join the union. With it the lobbying industry around Brussels has skyrocketed. The development of lobbying on such a large scale started in the 1970s, first with direct election to the European Parliament, and then again with the Single European Act of 1986. The number of politicians increased and so did the responsibilities of the Union and its various components. Also, there are appointed officials who have powerful and important roles that guide and advise the politicians. Now there three main routes in which to change or implement policy; the European Parliament itself, the Council, or the European Commission. Other ways of influencing policy are through national government officials, national delegations and council working groups. It is estimated that over two thousand and six hundred special interest groups have permanent offices in Brussels, and the majority of those are trade associations. It is believed that around twenty thousand lobbyists work there too. Because of concerns over corruption there were calls for the registration of lobbyists, but as it was a voluntary measure and only around six thousand lobbyists complied. Now the European watchdogs are asking for compulsory registration and a code of ethics backed by law.

The U.K. lobby

A recent study of the British lobby industry concluded that there was widespread distrust amongst the public for the actions of the lobbyists. Many sectors called for more accountability from firms engaged in lobbying and from the politicians that they try to influence. In the end the idea of accounting for every meeting between M.P.s and lobbyists was just not a workable proposition, and the media probably have a far greater influence than most lobbyists. It also states that politician’s exposure to lobbying is on the whole a good thing for the democratic process. Lobbying has become more widespread than anyone believed and it reflects the changing social and economic values and priorities in society. Politicians can benefit from a large lobby base as they have to deal with a wide range of issues and don’t always have the time to fully investigate all of them. Lobbyists are able to inform them more thoroughly than they can themselves, given their time restraints, and can provide information that initiates wider debate of the issues. The work of the lobbyists is becoming more professional and tends to be more transparent. They now take a greater role in the actual development of policies all the way through from conception to the passing of laws. Political parties are changing their attitude towards lobbying by granting easier and greater access to the lobbies, this is because of a change in political activity throughout society. Many people have turned their backs on influencing policies through the old party system and have come to believe that the best way to pressure the government is by lobbying or advocacy groups. It has been noted that many non-governmental groups have had greater success in influencing policies than those working within the political framework.

The United States lobby

Lobbying in the United States has been entrenched from almost the beginning of the Republic and has become an accepted part of the political process. Although accepted it is still tainted with distrust and there has been various inquiries into it because of scandals.

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Lobbying takes place at all levels of government from the local to the national level. A report that came out in 2014 claimed that there are around one hundred thousand lobbyists and that their activities were becoming much more sophisticated and shadowy. By the end of the 1920s there were calls for more transparency as much of the lobbying took place was in private between the politicians and lobbyists. During the 1950s the Supreme Court marked the difference between direct and indirect lobbying; direct lobbying acted solely on Congress and politicians, and indirect lobbying was the effort to change public opinion, and they concluded that indirect lobbying was better because it bolstered democracy. Later the rise of the political action committees (PACs), changed the face of American politics, they took charge of raising and spending the money that politicians needed to campaign. Lobbyists took over these committees and instead of waiting for political candidates to be elected to influence them; they started from the very beginning. Before the 1980s legislators leaving office would not have dreamed of becoming lobbyists, but during that decade it became an increasing trend. Known as the revolving door, pliant politicians were guaranteed a secure job at the end of their term.

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The 'revolving door' refers to politicians and corporate elite who switch from one sector to the other.

The debate continues

Rocked by scandals, America moved to regulate and control their lobbyists laying down rules of conduct about what is and is not acceptable activity. Many of these rules centered around what ‘gifts’ politicians could receive from lobbyists and their clients, but despite judicial penalties corruption is still prevalent. Of course, not all lobbyists or their clients are corrupt, but the whole industry operates under that cloud in the minds of most voters. Another consequence of lobbying is the making of bad policy decisions based on political concerns instead of the common good. An example of this is a case in which a coalition of pro-health groups went up against the food industry lobby to introduce healthy lunches for school children. The pro-health lobby lost because of fear of political consequences; a clear case of profit over health. Cases like this obscure the good that many lobbies do and rejects the claim that government works for the common good. In the United States the right to petition the government is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. It is the right to free speech, whether by an individual or in a group. In Britain there is no Bill of Rights, but there has always been the unwritten law that the people can petition their government. In fact, during the nineteenth century that was the accepted practice to change government policy, and by 1839 over thirteen thousand petitions had been turned over to parliament. Women campaigned to get the vote in 1866, but had no success and by the early twentieth century the Suffragettes turned to direct action, which included violence. By 1928 with the Representation of the People Act, they achieved their aims. Despite the scandals that kept surfacing such as the ‘Cash for Honors’ or ‘Cash for Influence’, government still refuse to regulate the lobbying industry, relying on purely self-regulation. One of the quirks of British political privilege is that it isn’t legally wrong for politicians to work for private interests for payments, it may be ethically wrong and frowned upon, but no one gets prosecuted for it. Whatever the problems that arise from the use of lobbyists to influence government policy, it is a trend that is increasing and will continue to grow, so it is probably time to work out a framework of guidelines within which it may work with the maximum transparency and accountability.

References


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