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In Defence of Lobbyists

24 November 2011

3:47 PM

24 November 2011

3:47 PM

Amol Rajan – author of the splendid Twirlymen – has an entertaining rant against lobbyists in the Independent today. Entertaining, of course, is code for less than mightily persuasive. Lobbying, Amol complains, is nothing but "legalised bribery". This is the accepted view and just the sort of thing sensible folk are supposed to believe.

Distasteful as you may find the business, one does wonder what the anti-lobbying fraternity think is a viable alternative. ‘Tis easy to despise lobbyists but they fulfill an essential role and one that, more importantly, needs to be protected. That this can produce unfortunate outcomes is not the point; the principle of the thing – the right to petition MPs and parliament – is rather more important. To the extent there are problems with any of this, lobbying and the sharp-suited chaps hired to do the job are symptoms, not causes.

I should declare an interest: I have chums who are lobbyists and I do not see them as venal threats to democracy. On the contrary, they’re obvious targets for populist tub-thumping and columnists happy to play to the gallery. As a Washington-based friend puts it:

If you want to reduce the number of lobbyists, shink the size of goverment. The proliferation of lobbyists happened when the federal goverment decided to regulate every aspect of american society. We wouldn’t have 2000 farm bill lobbyists if the livelihood of the American farmer didn’t depend upon a piece of legislation every 5 years.

And if you want to put 5000 more lobbyists out of business, rip the taxcode up by its roots. Get rid of all the deductions, loopholes and special interest exceptions. All those lobbyists whose job it is to preserve their company’s little tax break go out of work the next day.

But the bottom line is that congress and the federal govermnent and all its agencies have gotten to be so big in size (compare the size of a member’s Congressional staff in the 1970s to today, look at how large the federal workforce has grown) and so complex, if the lobbyist didn’t exist, you would have to invent him. You need a professional class to navigate the byzantine backwaters of the bureaucracy.

I also tend to agree with Grover Norquist when he said companies aren’t spending enough on lobbying. Look at the windfall retailers got when they beat the banks on swipe fees – tens of millions of dollars added to the bottomline every year going forward. For an investment of 2-3 million on lobbying – that’s a pretty pretty good return on investment. And probably just a tiny fraction of, say, Home Depot’s advertising budget.

Adds another friend who toils in a different lobby shop:

I’d also add that never in the history of democracy has a lobbyist ever voted on a bill. That is up to the legislator. If policy makers want to blame lobbyists for their own decisions so be it, but we tend to accept an excuse from our high government officials that we don’t from our nine year olds, namely, "They made me do it."

Quite. Things may be bigger, more complicated and more expensive in the United States than in Britain but the same principle applies. If Chris Huhne – whom Amol bafflingly considers a "brilliant minister" – did not preside over quite such a complex government department so stuffed with regulations and open to quite so much rent-seeking then there’d be less need for the energy sector to employ quite so many lobbyists. Similarly, if the government wishes to regulate the banks it is reasonable for the banks to make representations to government to defend or promote their interests. If you accept the need for this regulation (as you probably will) then justice demands you accept the need for lobbying too.

Amol, in fact, acknowledges all this when he, presumably unwittingly, demolishes his own argument. Apparently, you see, "Some forms of lobbying – such as for charities – are less reprehensible." Ah! there you have it: lobbying in the cause of interests I consider palatable is not so bad; lobbying for causes or industries I consider deplorable is something else again. 

But if political organisations such as Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace or the Trades Unions must be allowed to lobby government then so must BAE Systems and Scottish Power and Barclays Bank and anyone else you care to mention.

None of this compels ministers to listen to lobbyists or dole out lovely little favours and exemptions. That’s their decision. But, yes, corporations are people too and if you can lobby government then why can’t businesses? Indeed, to the extent that you wish to make it easier for small or medium-sized businesses to have some clout in Whitehall then you need a lobbying industry to make that happen.

The problem, however, is not lobbying and "solving" it (if there is a "problem") is a matter of simplyfying government and regulation, not increasing it. Increase regulation and government involvement if you must but at least accept that one of the consequences of doing so is making lobbying more, not less, important and, actually, vital.

Disclosure: no-one has lobbied me to write this. Am open to offers, mind you…


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