Time to clean up the lobbyists' acts

August 25, 2007 14:59 | by Andy Rowell

Earlier this month, a fleet of vehicles drew up outside a house in the picturesque resort of Girdwood in Alaska. Scores of people dressed in black surrounded the house and then, using a lock-smith, entered the premises.

This was a raid by America's federal police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), at the home of Alaskan Senator, Ted Stevens, who is at the centre of a growing corruption scandal. Stevens, the longest standing Republican in the Senate, is now under investigation for his close ties to the oil industry, including the service company, Veco.

The FBI is investigating whether it was Veco or Stevens who actually paid for an extension to Stevens' home. At least two other inquiries are looking into whether Stevens earmarked federal funds for land deals benefiting friends and associates. Veco's chief executive officer, Bill Allen, has already pleaded guilty to bribery, extortion, conspiracy and fraud charges. On one exchange recorded by the FBI, Allen can be heard telling a state lawmaker, "I own your ass."

There is increasing public pressure for politics on both sides of the Atlantic, in both America and Europe, to clean up its act. Political scandals on both continents have led for greater calls for transparency in the way politicians operate and for calls for a greater separation between politicians and business interests.

One particular area of concern is lobbying. The power of Washington's lobbyists is legendary. Their influence has increased enormously since President Bush and the Republicans came to power. The corporate-friendly Bush-era has seen the number of registered lobbyists in Washington more than double to over 35,000. Last year, companies spent around $2.5 billion on lobbying Congress and gaining access to the nation's politicians.

"There's unlimited business out there for us," argues Robert Livingston, a former Republican himself and now president of a thriving lobbying firm. "Companies need lobbying help."

With so much money trying to buy power and influence, Washington has been rocked by a number of lobbying and political scandals in the last two years. In November 2005, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the Republican House of Representatives member for California, resigned after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes.

All through 2005, Washington had been pre-occupied by the case of Jack Abramoff, a once all-powerful lobbyist. Abramoff was well-connected to conservative Republicans in the White House and Congress, but in January 2006 he pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He was later sentenced to nearly six years in prison.

The Abramoff scandal has added to the pressure for regulatory action for Congress to clean up its act. It is also seen as one of the reasons for the Democratic victory in last November's elections which saw the Democrats take control of Congress for the first time in years. The Democrats made lobbying and ethics reform a priority.

Earlier this month, before they all headed off for their month's holiday, both houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and Senate, approved a package of new ethics and lobbying rules.

The legislation calls for bans on free gifts, meals and travel paid for by lobbyists. American politicians will no longer be able to take free rides on private planes or accept discounted fares. If they rejoin the private sector as lobbyists, former members of Congress will be denied perks such as access to gyms and special parking that would give them privileged access to their former colleagues.

Proponents have hailed the measure as the most significant reform since the Watergate in the days of President Nixon in the 1970s. It represents a "cultural shift in the traditions of Capitol Hill," argues the New York Times.

Democratic Senator Russ Feingold from Wisconsin, a strong proponent of lobbying reform, calls the bill "a very strong piece of reform legislation", adding that "ethical conduct in government should be more than an aspiration, it should be a requirement".

However, others argue it is a wasted opportunity. The Washington Examiner argued the provisions did not go far enough, complaining that "There are a few positive provisions in the bill" and the "bottom line is that it is stuffed with cosmetic changes that fail to address the core issue of congressional corruption".

Others agree. "This bill is a landmark betrayal, not a landmark accomplishment", the Republican Senator for Oklahoma Tom Coburn declared after its passage. He pointed out that certain key sections of the bill only included voluntary rather than mandatory disclosure measures. So some seven months after the American people demanded change from their politicians, they have delivered, but now where near enough.

There have been moves in Europe to make the democratic process much more transparent as a result of the huge increase in lobbyists. Brussels, which now has 15,000 registered lobbyists, is rapidly catching Washington up as the home of corporate influence on our democratic process.

But the lobbying activity is clothed in secrecy. In order to address this, in March 2005 the European Commission set up the European Transparency Initiative. Siim Kallas, the Transparency Commissioner said at the launch of the scheme that transparency was now high on the European political agenda. "Transparency is an essential prerequisite for the integrity and credibility of our political institutions - local, national or international," he said.

One area of any complete lack of transparency at the EU is there has been no mandatory registration of lobby activities at either the Commission or parliament, a point not lost on Kallas. "Registers provided by lobbyists' organisations in the EU are voluntary and incomprehensive and do not provide much information on the specific interests represented or how it is financed. Self imposed codes of conduct have few signatories and have so far lacked serious sanctions." he said.

So what did Kallas do? Two years later, after a huge public consultation he proposed setting up a voluntary register of interests, rather than a mandatory one. So having identified a significant problem, his solution is a continuation of the problem: Having said that voluntary schemes do not work, he has set up a voluntary scheme.

A parallel transparency initiative has now been set up by a coalition of over 140 civil society groups, (including SpinWatch), trade unions, academics and public affairs firms which is called the "Alter-EU ".

The coalition sees the voluntary disclosure standards as far too weak and limited. Christine Pohl from Friends of the Earth, a member of the Alter-EU, says: "Those that want to stay in the shadows will never register or disclose financial information on a voluntary basis."

Alter-EU is therefore calling for mandatory EU lobbying disclosure legislation as well as other measures it believes will improve the democratic process, such as the privileged access and undue influence granted to corporate lobbyists. One way companies have undue access to the EU decision making process is through secret advisory committees, known as expert groups, which advise the Commission.

Since 2000, the number of expert groups has grown by more than 40 percent, yet the membership of the majority of these groups remains secret. Following intense pressure from the European Parliament, the European Commission has recently announced it will improve transparency over its expert groups. So far the signs do not look good with what names have been released, showing that corporate interests have a disproportionate number of places on the groups.

The Commission has been forced to act in other ways, regarding "special advisors". In February, 2007, it was revealed that a special advisor to the energy Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, was an industry lobbyist called Rolf Linkohr. Linkohr is a former Member of the European Parliament, who whilst working as a special advisor was also running a Brussels-based commercial consultancy.

He was also on the board of two power companies. Linkohr has now had his contract terminated after failing to clarify there was no conflict of interest between the roles. The Commission has also published a list of its "special advisors" for the first time. Up until now this list has been secret.

There is also growing political pressure for Members of the European Parliament, called MEPs, to clean up too. The "Declaration of Interests" that the MEPs have to sign if they take for trips paid by for by lobbyists or companies is seen as weak and unregulated. As long as an MEP fills in a form no one checks to see if they are being truthful. European insiders see it as a system that is wide open to abuse. They argue that it is only a matter of time before we have yet another corruption scandal.

As Senator Feingold said in the US Senate debate: "Our priority must be to convince our constituents that we are here to advocate their best interests, not those of well-connected lobbyists". If only that were really true.

This article first appeared on Spinwatch. Andy Rowell is a freelance writer. His latest book is Don't Worry, It's Safe to Eat

See also: http://www.spectrezine.org/europe/Reichel2.htm