What is a lobbyist and where does this term originate? Research indicates it may have originated from Britain in the 15th century when constituents met with their representatives in lobbies that adjoined the legislative chambers. This term may have come into the United States along with the migration of people from the British Isles to the colonies perhaps as early as the 1800’s.
In so far as the concept is concerned, the there is value and honor in providing a forum for individuals to meet with their elected officials to discuss pertinent matters. The question is whether this forum is available only to individuals of substance and influence, are the discussions for personal or mutual benefit between the lobbyist and the elected official, or are the discussions for the benefit of the community?
Today, lobbyist has taken on a negative connotation. It is often spoken of with some distaste and contempt and the individual in this profession may not be considered much better than a user car salesman.
Because lobbyists can individually or as groups provide some level of advocacy, the ethics of such an act depend on the vision and objectives of such a group. Improving automobile safety is positive; obtaining undue advantage for government contracts is obviously sleazy.
In the United States, lobbyists need to be registered per the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. While that appears to provide transparency behind lobbyist activities and individuals who are registered as lobbyists, it does not prevent such a group from hiring consultants and advisors who do not need to be registered since they are not part of such organizations. It also means that individuals who have served in the government and on committees have significant value because they understand the government machinery, have contacts and the ability to conduct affairs and expedite matters with a “wink and a nod”.
The result of lobbyism is the ability to achieve aims and goals with the reciprocal compensation for politicians through campaign funds and support by key groups. So is there really a difference between lobbyism and bribery?
Bribery is very blatant where funds and goods of value clearly end up in the pockets of elected officials and their families and friends. A very recent example is that of Richard J. Lipsky, a long-standing lobbyist with an established reputation for supporting the position of the underdogs. He was charged earlier in 2012 for bribing Carl Kruger, a powerful democratic state senator from Brooklyn. Mr. Lipsky was convicted of sharing lobbying fees with the senator and acknowledged that he had indeed crossed the line from promoting actions based on the power of his arguments to using his checkbook.
It is instructive to look into how lobbying has gained prominence in many countries across the globe. It has strong roots, for example in the European Union with about 15,000 lobbyists based out of Brussels exerting their influence on legislative matters.
Most recently, Walmart has been in the news in India where the Parliament has raucous meetings in its winter session about the fact that Walmart may have unfairly lobbied to gain an important foot hold in the large Indian retail market. Walmart executives acknowledge expenditures of $25 million of lobbyist activities, which are considered legal in the United States. American Ambassador Nancy Powell has indicated that in the U.S., “bribery” and “lobbying” are “two separate things”.
Is lobbying an honorable profession? It is probably the second oldest profession in the world. Having lived in countries with emerging and mature economies, here is a personal view: Corruption and inducements can be a way of life in an emerging economy because there is insufficient money, goods and services to go around and a second source of income is necessary to subsist. In a stable or mature economy where the necessities of life are generally available, such actions are considered unwholesome and do not normally exist as an everyday occurrence.
However, in both economies, lobbying is a fact of life and is contained at the highest levels of government and industry. Individuals at those levels consider it a matter of privilege and a return on investment for “paid dues”. It is a way of life and unlikely to change. There will be instances where it takes a necessary public hit before it is shrouded from future inquisitions.
Perhaps, when we are able to successfully deal with the world’s oldest profession, we can tackle this next.
Shami Dugal has lived in both emerging and mature economies. He is an optimist but a realist. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Operations Research from University of Waterloo (Canada) and an MPA from Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa). He can be reached at email@example.com.