Nothing wrong in lobbying for TPP

Talk of Lobbyists is Often Much About Nothing, but They Perform an Important Tasks in Our Democracy

by: YPSWA President, Volodymyr Paslavskyi, MPPAL 

On June 19, 2012, Canadian Prime Minister issued press release, stating that he welcomes the announcement by Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) members of their support for Canada joining TPP.  But on June 20, 2012, Canadian media reported that Canada lobbied very hard the TTP in order to get this type of endorsement from the TTP countries. The TPP is a free trade agreement currently under negotiation by nine countries: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. The current membership represents a market of 510 million people and a GDP of $17.6 trillion. With the participation of Canada and Mexico, the market will comprise 658 million people and a GDP of $20.5 trillion. Canada will proceed to enter the talks at the earliest opportunity.

This piece of news sparked vibrant conversations in some circles of community pundits and leaders. They were uncomfortable with a notion that the government needs to employ lobbying practices or hire professional lobbyists in order to get its message across. Others, however, were more concerned with Canada’s supply management in dairy and poultry industries and how Canada’s participation in the TTP will affect dairy and poultry industries in Ontario, Canada.  They claim that it could raise prices of milk and eggs for ordinary Canadians.  Yet others suggested that this represents a loss on behalf of lobbyists, who represent dairy and poultry industries in Ontario, for they have failed to forewarn the government of its dislike of the TPP.   

The Canadian media reports that in order to join the TPP, Canada will have to give up protection it currently enjoys over the dairy and poultry industries.

To my surprise, many of these heated discussions of lobbyists in the public are much about nothing. They are definitely not always justified. Pundits and community leaders have never dealt with lobbyists and they tend to perceive them as dark knights, holding the keys to all important issues.

On behalf of Young Professionals and Skilled Workers Association, I have looked into the issue of commercial lobbying, and found that lobbying is much a product of democracy as is voting.  If the n reader disagrees with me, then, he/she should read this article and be prepared to be challenged.

Let me begin that saying that lobbying is nothing more than ‘advocacy of interests.’  “The term came into use in the 17th century when an anteroom of the House of Commons in London was nicknamed ‘the lobby’” (Jackson, 2004:180), where it was easy to meet and discuss business with the members of Parliament (McLean, 1996: 289).

In the 1970s, lobbying took on itself new life as small companies in the United States broke away from the larger Public Relations (PR) companies and started to specialize strictly in Government Relations (GR) (Walker, 2009: 84). According to some estimates in 1995, the professional lobbying industry in the US had become a billion-dollar-a-year industry (Walker, 2009: 83). Another American report suggests that from 1998 to 2005, registered lobbying expenditures increased from US$1.4 billion to US$2.47 billion (Richter, 2009: 893-894).

Today, special interests, businesses, NGOs and others, in order to be more competitive and effective, retain services of professional lobbying firms that have arrived in the 1970s as a result of professionalization of politics, where ‘career politicians’ are more dominant (McLean, 1996: 290). Members of civil society are also more aware of their rights and are better organized to demand from politicians concessions or entitlements (Walker, 2009: 84-86). In a nutshell, commercial lobbying is referring to attempts to exert influence on the formation or implementation of public policy by means of hiring professional lobbyists (McLean, 1996: 289).

The extent and effectiveness of lobbyists in influencing political process is unknown, largely because such information is not widely distributed by the lobbyists and their clients. In many cases, such information is considered a commercial secret. In the public, this has resulted in criticism of lobbyists as ones, who buy influence, votes, access or who wield too much power and for money use it to dictate public policies and expenditures in ways that are unaccountable to the public (Koger, 2009: 485-486 & Dubs, 1998: 193). Hence, with this article, I hope to unravel some common populist assumptions about lobbying.

In order to understand commercial lobbying better, it is worthwhile to stress that it is mainly possible in a pluralistic society. A “pluralist model of society is one in which the existence of groups is the political essence of society” (McLean, 1996: 377) and in which conflict and competition to influence the government is inevitable and within the legal bounds (Jackson, 2004: 181). Groups vie for power to influence the government, which is treated as an ‘umpire’ that needs to choose between their multiple interests in order to endorse them or not (Miller, 1987: 131). Consequently, people are free in the pluralistic democratic society to acquire memberships in various groups and advocate their (political) views and interests onto the government.

However, in a corporatist society, likeMexico, for example, commercial lobbying as such does not exist. A corporatist society is characterized by very “close interaction of groups and government” where special interests are part of the government process and are represented by professional associations (Jackson, 2004: 182-183). In such society, the need for hired consultants, who can advise on the process or have contacts and access to legislators, is reduced to zero, because special interests already have access to the government. Labour, business, environment and other associations on behalf of their member organizations construct public policy together with the government. “Thus, instead of just lobbying politicians, interests groups have an established voice within the policy-making process itself. In return for their cooperation… associations usually receive benefits beyond their direct role in policy making… [and] group leadership does not have to worry about competition because they are given official recognition as the sole legitimate voice for the concerns of their membership” (Jackson, 2004: 183). Consequently, commercial lobbying is a product of culture and political system that emphasizes freedom, competition and allows for disagreements about the ultimate goals. In contrast, corporatist culture emphasizes order and regulation (Jackson, 2004: 183). 

At first glance, it may seem as if the pluralist model is distractive and chaotic, where policies cannot possibly be delivered due to competition and conflict among groups. But policies and legislations are still drafted largely because they are not ‘reincarnations’ of major ideological commitments. That is, policies and legislations tend to be more incremental and practical in nature rather than ideological. “More than ¾ of all the legislation that a government introduces is derived from the ongoing policy process… Departments continually nag at problems, whatever the colour of the party in office, or the status of the parliamentary calendar. Civil servants consult with affected interests to see what can be done about problems of concern” (Jordan, 1991: 71).

An incremental approach to public policy also appeals to the Parliamentarians. Career politicians, who are also called, ‘policy entrepreneurs,’ build on previous policies to make their own marks (Jordan, 1991: 70). As a result, the flow of policies continues, even in hard times, which provides lobbyists with a steady flow of work as well (Jordan, 1991: 70). Lobbyists, in turn, imagine an incremental policy-making process as ‘picking low hanging fruits,’ which is really a metaphor for small and marginal changes to the status-quo policy that are both realistic and practical. Low hanging fruits stand for interests’ requests or objectives that are likely to meet no opposition from the public servants and do not require expensive resources or prolonged and exhaustive campaigns. Put differently, one can lobby for these fruits successfully.

Incremental approach to policy-making by the public servants and politicians recognizes that policy-making process is an ongoing process that proceeds slowly by successive steps (Kernaghan, 1999: 131). Close alternatives and changes, according to Charles E. Lindblom, father of the Incremental school of thought, are applied to concrete policies in the real world because public servants compose marginal improvements to the status-quo policy that makes it more acceptable to those special interests affected by it (Kernaghan, 1999: 131). Even budgetary process is also not exempt from the incremental approach because majority of budgets are incremental in nature (Graham, 2007: 86). Annual budgets are based on adjustments to items in the previous years’ budgets along with the additions and subtractions arising from program requirements, policies and lobbying (Graham, 2007: 86). “If certain groups lose as a result of one decision [in year 1], then there likely will be an implicit understanding that the decision makers ‘owe them one’ so that the next decision [in year 2] must provide some sort of recompense” (Kernaghan, 1999: 132).

In short, budgeting is incremental and fragmented. By focusing only on the specific proposals for change and making comparisons to only a few alternatives and by ignoring the base of ongoing expenditure, [politicians and public servants] are able each year to reach agreement on the contents of the budget. It is the gradual accumulation of these annual incremental decisions on expenditure increases, periodically sprinkled with the occasional [negotiations,] expenditure reviews and decisions on reductions, that determines how much gets spent on defence and how much on health [and on business development] (Good, 2007: 171).

Pluralism and incrementalism make (commercial) lobbying possible. On the one hand, pluralism empowers groups to make representations to the government and on the other hand, incremental approach shows that in order for a policy to be acceptable, consultations with stakeholders (i.e. special interests) need to take place and changes to the policy are possible at an incremental pace. Incremental approach to policy-making and budgetary process enables lobbyists to lobby, whose success, as research shows, will depend on how closely their proposals are related to the status-quo policies i.e. existing government priorities.

Professional Lobbying is an attempt to persuade members of legislature and bureaucracy to support or oppose certain legislative and other initiatives or to exert influence on the formation or implementation of public policy by means of hiring professional lobbyists, who advise special interests on how to lobby or through personal contact with legislators and bureaucrats convey to them objectives of special groups (McLean, 1996: 289 & Jackson, 2004: 180). This definition captures what some pundits call “direct lobbying” or “insider lobbying” because it involves “close consultation with political and administrative leaders, relying mainly on financial resources, substantive expertise, and concentration within certain… constituents as a basis for influence. Direct lobbying is therefore made up of one-on-one contact and the provision information to try to influence legislators” (Victor, 2007: 827). Indirect or “outside” lobbying is directed at influencing the views of the broader public, which will influence the views of legislators in turn (Victor, 2007: 827).

According to Miller, the author of the book, “Lobbying Government,” “[lobbyists] can [also] be divided into two types: those who facilitate access to government and those who understand how government works” (Miller, 1987: 213). Two types are not mutually exclusive, but the first type is based on contact techniques aimed at Parliament, whereas the second type on a working knowledge of the way decisions are made in Parliament and government, and on building client’s case after research (Miller, 1987: 213). Hojnacki and Kimball write that lobbyists’ relationship with politicians depends on characteristics of the legislators, their positions, party affiliations, committee memberships, on personal and financial characteristics of lobbyists and on characteristics of the issue of debate (Victor, 2007: 829). Lobbyists usually strategically select politicians and provide them with the type of information that is most likely to help them in achieving their targets (Victor, 2007: 829). But according to Berry, the author of “The Interest Group Society,” lobbying options are sometimes limited to a few choices due to hectic nature of politics, where a well thought-out strategy is not possible. Consequently, Berry concludes that lobbyists never consciously decide on how to lobby, but just do it (Berry, 1997: 184). In a similar way, a lobbyist would build his/her case for budgetary expenditures or support and pitch it in to appropriate officials.

Literature on lobbying identifies one important “argument of utility” as justification for the existence of lobbyists (Jackson, 2004: 188). According to Palmer, the author of “Comparative Politics,” argument of utility simplifies mass-elite relationships by aggregating the disparate concerns of individuals into “one voice” or representative body. Utility argument suggests that formal political leadership cannot deal with all the citizens or interests at the same time and prefers to deal with one professional body that can represent and discipline citizens or interests (Jackson, 2004: 188). Lobby firms for a fee help affected groups to present their cases in a disciplined and effective manner, which is highly appreciated by the public servants and politicians responsible for particular portfolios (Jordan, 1991: 30-31). (According to one lobbyist, GR companies spend a lot of effort on educating their clients how to present their concerns to the government officials in an effective manner.) Moreover, lobby firms are also useful to citizens and interests that support issues, which did not find enough support from certain politicians. Thus, these citizens or interests feel no longer represented and in order to make their voices heard effectively, they retain the help of professional lobbyists (Jackson, 2004: 188). Consequently, lobby firms play an important role in linking citizens with politicians. Therefore, lobbying is a multifaceted and multilateral procedure, involving four different actors – Parliament (Congress), government, interest group(s) and professional lobbying firm(s). Various strategies and tactics are used to influence politicians and bureaucrats. These four actors exchange information forth and back, until it is attuned to the acceptable levels that they can live with it. Their cooperation is not ‘one way stream’ but all four actors are influenced by each other, which in turn influences what type of outcome special interests would get (Richter, 2009: 895).

Cooperation among these four actors suggests that they need each other and cannot work on policies without the involvement of others.

I hope this article dispels some of the myths about lobbyists.

Sources used in the article:

Berry, J. M. The Interest Group Society. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997.

Dubs, Alf. Lobbying, an insider’s guide to the parliamentary process. London: Pluto Press1988.

Jackson, Robert J. et. al. North American Politics. Toronto: Person Education Inc., 2004.

Jordan, Grant, Ed.. The commercial lobbyists: politics for profit in Britain. Aberdeen: AberdeenUniversity Press, 1991.

Good, David A. The politics of public money: spenders, guardians, priority setters, and financiawatchdogs inside the Canadians government. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Graham, Andrew. Canadian Public-Sector financial Management. Kingston: School of PublicPolicy Studies, Queen’s University, 2007.

Kernaghan, Kenneth and David Siegel. Public administration in Canada. Toronto: ITP Nelson1999.

Koger, Gregory and Jennifer Nicoll Victor. “Polarized Agents: Campaign Contribution byLobbyists.”  Political Science and Politics. Volume 42, No. 3, (July 2009), pg. 485-488.

McLEan, Iain. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Miller, Charles. Lobbying government: understanding and influencing the corridors of power.Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell LTD., 1987.

Richter, Brian Kelleher, et. al. “Lobbying and Taxes.”  American Journal of Political Science.Vol. 53, No. 4, (October 2009), pg. 893-909.

Victor, Jennifer Nicoll. “Strategic Lobbying: Demonstrating How Legislative Context AffectsInterest Groups’ Lobbying Tactics.” American Politics Research. Vol. 35, No. 6, (November 2007), pg. 826-845.

Walker, Edward T. “Privatizing Participation: Civic Change and the Organizational Dynamic ofGrassroots Lobbying Firms.” American Sociological Review. Vol. 74 (February 2009), pg. 83-105.

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