Diwate: Lobbying a core part of American politics

Varad Diwate


en people who speak make more noise than 10,000 who are silent,” said Napoleon Bonaparte.

There is one aspect in every election the mainstream political parties do not like to talk about. You do not find much media coverage about it. We know it exists, but still we choose to ignore it. It’s much like the white elephant in a room. This aspect is lobbying or “noise-making,” as Napoleon would call it.

We know it exists, and it plays major role in national politics. But after pouring corporate dollars into elections, what do lobbyists expect? How much influence do they actually exert on elected lawmakers? Do they subvert a democracy that was defined by Abraham Lincoln as “of the people, by the people, for the people”?

The question starts with how do we define such a wide term. According to Oxford Dictionary, lobbying is “to influence (members of a house of legislature) in the exercise of their legislative functions by frequenting the lobby. Also, to procure the passing of (a measure) through Congress by means of such influence.” It is a broad term encompassing interest groups, single-issue groups and corporate groups.

So, contrary to popular perception, lobbying may not always be about big money and powerful connections. A group actively representing special interests — for instance , minorities — can also be called lobbyist. Interests groups also dominate lobbying as there are anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights lobbies in Washington. A lobbyist and a lobbying firm both need to be registered, and they are regulated.

Why is this such a big deal? It is because a lot of money pumped into elections is not “invested” without expecting any return. (Financial biggies put their strength behind candidates for a reason ; they obviously do not donate a lot of money to political parties for charity. It is in expectation of some “favors” after a candidate gets elected. And the return of “favors” affects everyone. It may come in the form of eased regulations or another tax-break.) Full-time lobbyists are heavily paid to “influence” and “maintain connections” with lawmakers.

Some of the most powerful lobbies in Washington include the bank, food, oil and pharma lobbies. To be more specific, some of the corporations that lobby are Google, Boeing, Goldman Sachs and the National Rifle Association. Ever wondered how soda companies thrive even when there are concerns regarding the high calorie and sugar count? According to Reuters, “PepsiCo Inc., Coca-Cola Co. bottlers and the American Beverage Association spent more than $40 million lobbying in 2009 when Congress was considering a soda tax.” Most of the other industries also seek lower tax rates, lesser regulation and other such benefits.

Opensecrets.org gives comprehensive information about this topic. In these last phases of electoral campaigning, you may have come across advertisements that tacitly support a candidate but are not paid for by the candidate. These are paid for by political action committees (PACs) which include organizations supporting a candidate . The mentioned website gives thorough insight into amounts spent for lobbying by leading industries, their “support” to specific candidates, and also lobbies about a single issue or ideology. We realize that the number of lobbyists and the amount spent for lobbying has more or less remained the same. As of now, $1.68 billion have been spent for lobbying, and there are 11,702 “registered and unique” lobbyists.

It’s interesting to see the “power” behind this year’s presidential candidates. Both candidates are mainly supported by “large individual contributions.” The top contributors for President Barack Obama include his alma maters, Google, Microsoft and the U.S. government, while Mitt Romney’s top contributors are all leading banks, such as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America.

Lobbying is deemed to be legal under U.S. Constitution as it falls under free speech. There is nothing wrong with an individual representing an interest group in the capital. Representation in a democracy is hearing all voices including the underrepresented. How can a minority group, women’s group or worker’s group make its voice heard? In fact, if practiced by special interest groups, it helps a people’s representative to know about any specific concerns.

However, things start getting complicated when there are huge amounts of money spent by multinationals to get a candidate elected. And after a candidate is elected, any favor by a person in an elected office to a specific entity does not bode well for a level playing field. It’s not a healthy democracy if legislators have to bow down to the pressure of lobbyists.

Much has been said about the increasing influence of money in politics and about its new identity as a “millionaires club.” There are concerns if we can ever reverse this trend. However, we can definitely check the money flowing in campaign funds through activities like lobbying. There is a lot of information available on government websites and independent study sites. A quick search on the internet can definitely help you make a better choice as a voter.