HOUSTON – In 2010, the movie Casino Jack premiered in theatres. For many, especially in America, this film was a first glimpse into Washington, DC lobbying. It is based on the true story of Jack Abramoff, former lobbyist and businessman who was found guilty in 2006 of extensive corruption, along with other political lobbyists, Members of Congress and White House staffers. Abramoff and others were accused of overbilling, pocketing the profits, and even secretly orchestrating lobbying against their own clients to increase the need for their services.
Partially as a result of this film and very public scandal, lobbyists in the United States have a negative reputation – but they do have a widespread reputation. In France, on the other hand, the lobbying profession remains relatively unregulated and in the shadows.
The American Side of the Story
The United States passed the first piece of legislation regulating the lobbying profession in 1946. This sunshine law provided information to Members of Congress about those who could lobby them and these lobbyists’ employers and compensations. In 1995, Congress passed the Lobbying and Disclosure Act to make lobbyists more accountable by threatening fines for non-compliance. This was followed by the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in 2007, which required lobbyists to file quarterly (instead of semiannual) reports identifying themselves, issues lobbied, and congressional and executive branch agencies contacted. It forbids Members of Congress, officers, and employees from knowingly accepting any gifts or meals from a lobbyist, with some exceptions, like gifts paid for by the government. It also prohibits lobbyists from planning, organizing, arranging, or requesting travel for Members or staff. Civil penalties for these offenses have been increased as well.
Wright Andrews is a lawyer and lobbyist who has been working in Washington for about 40 years. Previously named by Washingtonian magazine as one of Washington’s “top lobbyists,” Andrews asserts that all of these regulatory laws “at the end of the day…didn’t matter that much.”
To Andrews, the problem lies in a “horrible enforcement record of the regulations” which is why he advocates for switching the control over this regulation from the legislature to the executive. Loopholes for not reporting lobbying activities are easy to find, he explains, and many regulations in place are redundant. To him, the severity of the problem has accelerated recently with uncontrolled campaign financing, as money has become a way to buy one’s opportunity to influence policy. As he says, “I know plenty of people worse than Jack Abramoff who are out there operating right now.”
“[Abramoff] was an anomaly,” disagrees Will Edington, a former Capitol Hill staff member turned nearly 32-year Washington lobbyist, “a crook. There are bad apples everywhere, in every profession. But hopefully the changes in the system will prevent others like him.” However, Edington recognizes that “lobbying has a bad name in this country, and I blame the media for that more than anything. They highlight the bad and downplay the good. To me that’s the issue.”
Edington argues that since the government has “cracked down on transparency in lobbying,” the problem lies more with political consulting – those who advise on election campaigns. “If you are going to regulate what a lobbyist is doing you should also regulate what a political consultant is doing.” He asserts that the McCain Feingold Act of 2002 regulating campaign financing “was a first step, but I don’t think it was an end all and be all.” To him, regulation of campaign finance and consulting remains insufficient, especially after the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court case ruling, which struck down parts of this law, and basically left campaign donations by corporations and unions unrestricted.
Across the Atlantic
France passed its first law regulating lobbying and special interest groups’ involvement in the legislative process in 2009. The first public register of such groups was thereby established, which allows those registered to enter Parliament, and subsequently holds them to a code of conduct. Seven lobbyists representing companies working with GMOs like Monsanto and Bayer were actually kicked out of Parliament in the fall of 2013 for failing to comply with the code. But according to a 2011 report by Transparency International France, “these provisions relate more to the representatives of interest groups and do not actually make the relationships forged by politicians in this environment transparent …today, the interactions between politicians and interest groups are far from being transparent.”
With the regulatory legislation in its infancy, the public is only recently learning about lobbying as a profession. A 2006 investigative book entitled Deputies Under Influence: The Real Power of Lobbies at the Assemblée Nationale by Hélène Constanty and Vincent Nouzille remains among a handful published on the topic. (There are dozens on the subject in the US.) However, in the fall of 2013, Christophe Sirugue, a member of the French National Assembly, gave an unprecedented special report on lobbies in the National Assembly and in the European Parliament. He serves as presiding officer of the delegation for special interest and education representatives (read: lobbyists).
Sirugue’s report asserts that there is a generally “negative” image of lobbying itself, which “corresponds to a French tradition of a Rousseau-ist conception of the law, identified as the expression of the general will.” (This contrasts with Anglophone Adam Smith’s definition of “public interest” as a “sum of private interests.”)
According to the report this conception originates in the Decree of Allarde and the Chapelier Law in 1791 that together abolished corporations and prohibited associations of employers or workers. This was to eliminate any middle body between the people and the State, echoing the principles of the French Revolution. While these laws were thrown out in 1864, the real emergence of lobbying in France did not occur until the early 1980s with increasingly corporatizing industries. Apparently, “a necessity emerged for companies had to call on real specialists of intermediation, capable of helping them present their cases.”
The report claims that the regulatory laws were “welcomed” by all involved but remain insufficient. Sirugue and his colleagues proposed 15 changes to ameliorate the situation, among them banning lobbyists from certain rooms in Parliament, looking into the possibility of putting the specific work of interest group representatives on the internet and making the presence of the client obligatory at a meeting between a lobbyist and a Deputy (member of Parliament).
Since the report, a (albeit incomplete) list of interest groups lobbying the French government has been published online. But, Transparency International France and RegardsCitoyens.org’s 2011 research asserts that the 144 organizations registered by the 2009 government regulations are a “very weak figure compared to the 4,635 organizations” they had identified.
Addressing an issue broader than registration, Sirugue pointed to Members of Parliament as equally responsible for lobbying ethics: “The question of the presence of lobbies in the National Assembly cannot only be concentrated on the lobbying professionals.”
Not Campaign Finance, but Corruption
Unlike in America “the biggest problem with lobbying in France is virulent corruption,” claims François Logerot, a lifelong French public servant and former President of the French Audit Court. He points out that the problem of lobbyists and campaign finance does not exist in France because of the strict regulations on campaign spending. Rather, the lobbies, “the pharmaceuticals especially” are “powerful in France” and prone to corruption.
In fact, a special advisor to President François Hollande quit his job in April 2014 after French investigative journalism site Mediapart revealed a previous conflict of interest. This advisor, Aquilino Morelle had been doing private consulting work for a Danish pharmaceutical company while working as a government inspector for the French state’s public service inspectorate for social, health, employment, and labor policies (IGAS). He had simultaneously coauthored a report titled “The framework for care programs for patients involved with drug-related treatment, financed by pharmaceutical companies.” IGAS maintains they had given him no authorization to do such consulting in 2007.
In Transparency International France’s analysis of Sirugue’s report, the organization declares that it “constitutes a new step in the right direction, but remains a minimum concerning transparency of public decisions and relations with interest representatives.” The association’s reaction report calls upon the government to legally define the relationship between officials and lobbyists, requests that deputies publish online their meeting schedules, and urges the establishment of a code of ethics.
In 2011 a position was created to monitor the ethics of the National Assembly – the déontologue. In her final report before relinquishing the post in April of 2014, déontologue Noëlle Lenoir wrote, “The presence of lobbies at the Assemblée Nationale should not be left free to unleash caricatured interpretations that each lobby might be a corrupted agent.” She argues, “in our epoch, we cannot continue, as is already too often the case in France, to distinguish the ‘good’ lobbies of the public sector from the ‘bad’ of the private sector. The most important thing is that power efficiently defends our national and European interests throughout globalization.”
This brings up an issue the US does not have to deal with: as a member state of the EU, much of the lobbying that affects France actually happens in Brussels. As a result, Logerot asserts, interest groups need to have “people in both places” to ensure things get done. EU lobbying has historically been much more regulated than in France, but many still consider it insufficient. A draft agreement on changes to the European Parliament and European Commission lobbyist register was called “hugely disappointing” by ALTER-EU, a transparency campaign group. This register remains voluntary, but the draft would provide incentives for groups and people to register by facilitating better access to Parliament premises or allowing events on premises.
Despite different political systems, languages, cultures and lobbying histories, it is almost nice to know that from across the ocean, France and the US both have problems with their lobbying professions, even if the problems themselves are not always the same. As Edington puts it, “everybody’s got an interest in what government does and everybody’s got to have a lobbyist in some form or fashion out there representing them, whether they know it or not.”
Emma Hurt is a native of Washington, DC majoring in history at Rice University. She spent last semester studying journalism as an exchange student at Sciences Po in Paris and continues to freelance from Houston.The opinions expressed in this editorial are her own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.