The inexplicable art of lobbying

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jan 7 2006, 05:30am hrs
One of the biggest stories of 2006 with global implicationspolitical, business and, perhaps, even socialis the unfolding Jack Abramoff scandal in the United States. This is the story of an ace Washington lobbyist, who spent millions of dollars in the last decade on political contributions and free gifts on almost 220 members of Congress, and who has now pleaded guilty to a spectrum of federal crimes involving political bribery, influence peddling and abuse of public trust.

From an early reading of media and public reaction, it appears that a throw the bums out wave of public revulsion could well unseat Republican control of Congress in 2006, not to mention increasing the odds of a Democratic presidency in 2008.

Meanwhile, in a somewhat parallel development in India, a recent sting operation has unmasked 11 members of Parliament as accepting money in return for asking prompted questions inside the legislature. Both the US and Indian exposes highlight an insidiously expanding culture of sleaze when business and politics tend to overlap more often behind closed doors rather than in public view. Political lobbying by special groups for private gain, as against for common good, is the dark underbelly of free-market democracies.

In India, corruption has long remained a top worry for global and domestic investors, and even at the recent 2005 WEF India Economic Summit, a major portion of recommendations that emerged revolved around the need for transparent mechanisms to handle the interface between politics and business. However, an important element that is missing in our debate about corruption is an honest look at the role, methods and ethics of political lobbying by businesses.

In the US, the Eton of this 20th century industry, lobbying is a runaway success. Registered lobbyists in Washington have more than doubled in the past decade to over 25,000, and have become now so powerful and ubiquitous that a whole sub-industry of watchdog NGOs has sprouted over time. One of the more reputed and credible of these is the Center for Public Integrity.

According to its director, Roberta Baskin, the media and public have mistakenly focussed on campaign finance because each year since 1998, the amount spent to influence federal lawmakers is double the amount of money spent to elect them.

She adds a very telling statistic: lobbying to influence the decisions of Congress, the White House and officials at more than 200 federal agencies is now so widespread that lobbyists probably raked in almost $3 billion in 2005, far more than the total salaries paid to all 30 Major League Baseball teams.

Another watchdog, the Center for Responsive Politics, reports that it found that there are almost 250 former members of Congress and federal agency heads who are currently registered to lobby their old colleagues. Overall, Center researchers have identified 2,200 former government officials who have gone through the revolving door.

Though not as nearly as widespread as in the US, lobbying is growing as a profession and industry in Canada, Japan and Europe. Brussels, in particular, now increasingly resembles Washington, with an expanding numbers of think-tanks, advocacy groups, law firms, and other such front organisations moving there, all of whom effectively represent large business interests, sometimes even provincial governments and small city boards, that need to monitor and shape EU decisions on policy or subsidy.

In India, the fact that so little has been written or discussed openly by our usually hyperactive media about lobbying is not just ironic but also hypocritical, since the existence of lobbyists with political influence and bureaucratic access is one of the most open secrets of life in Delhi, known to almost every economic journalist. Some lobbyists are related to the powerful, some are retired bureaucrats, while others are a motley group who have gone around the block a few times and know the ropes of government.

In the old days, well before Indians imbibed western-styled slickness, lobbyists used to call their work government liaison. But, over time, this became too cliched and too derogatory an appellation, and their work has now been relabeled external relations or corporate affairs or some other combination. But none still carry business cards which simply says political lobbyist. Why Because lobbying is still perceived, and often practiced, as a shadowy art.

Is lobbying legal Absolutely. In fact the right to petition the government and to have a voice in public policy is guaranteed under a true democracy, for individuals, groups or companies alike. For businesses, it is perhaps even necessary to communicate their concerns to legislators.

To not push the interests of stockholders on vital issues might even be considered a clear failure of responsibility. Many thinkers on the subject, like Ted B Arroyo, a scholar at Georgetown University, who wrote a bestseller a few years back, titled The Ethics of Lobbying: Organized Interests, Political Power, and the Common Good, agree that lobbying is a legitimate profession but support its regulation by laws. But whatever laws are framed, the original spirit and caveat under which lobbying needs to operate are simple: it must be done very transparently, and in a manner that does not bending rules for private gain at the expense of public interest.

In a sensible world, companies and special groups must have a voice, but one that does not stealthily take over the rhythm of the larger community.

The writer is editor, India Focus