Why are we afraid of lobbies?

Known as one of the “best lobbyist in Washington DC” or even “the lobbyist” as many worldwide magazines call him, Mr. Tony Podesta gave an overview of the history of lobbies and their importance at Madrid’s Rafael del Pino Foundation a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Podesta has been in the lobby industry since the election of President Bush father, creating along with his brother the so-called Podesta Group. Ever since, their business as lobbyists has increased in DC, the place where this extremely powerful groups started at the very lobbies of the hotels surrounding the White House.

Lobbies in the U.S. History are as old as the Independence War from Great Britain or the railway. President Lincoln was himself a lobbyist before being elected to Congress for the state of Illinois. Politics and business have always been extremely close and seeing it otherwise is like turning a blind eye to nepotism, corruption and a total lack of transparency in policy making.

There have to be ways to make citizens’ voices and their different interests be heard by our politicians. Ways to promote public debates on matters that affect all of us. Regulating lobbying is the transparent way to do it. As it is widely known, CEOs, interest groups usually meet with mayors, deputies, congressmen and so on. Citizens have no control nor way to overview these activities, their campaign funding management, nor of any decision made over those long lunches, nice presents or even money envelopes.

Spain has finally passed a new Law on Transparency, although we still need to wait for it to be enforced if it truly supports transparency. However, there has been no move forward regulating lobbies and their activities. Why? Why are we Spaniards or Europeans so afraid of lobbies?

In general terms, lobbies had always had a negative connotation, and still do have a quite bad image in the U.S. It is generally seen as that the great ones control public policy. Mr. Podesta denied these statements by giving the examples of how the Defense budget of the U.S. is going to be massively decreased, despite of the powerful lobbies in that sector. Yet he also noted that it is “always better to be big, strong and powerful than small and insignificant.

On the other hand, he gave two nice examples of how the voice of consumers was heard over and had great impact: one story is about frozen chicken that could be sold as  fresh if it had been frozen at -18C for one to two years.  Consumers rallied a campaign where they managed to have congressmen playing bowling with the chickens in Capitol city. It had a mayor impact and the slogan of “If you can bowl with chickens, they aren’t fresh.”

The other example is about the son of an American Football player who had an accident an suffered from a serious spine damage. After the lobby work done in the Pentagon his supporters managed to fund raise $35 million a year which also went to support the veterans enduring the same pain after returning from war zones.

If we bring the subject to the European arena, lobbies are proliferating, as the new EU institutions do become more mature. However, it is still not a regulated activity and most worryingly, there is no transparency at all about who is moving the threads, what amount of money is he raising and when. Hopefully, the European Union will start promoting lobbies more actively and Spain shall follow the example. Or even better, we as concerned citizens can find a way to tackle problems such as corruption, nepotism and waste of public money.

We citizens want to know who pays for what, when and how much. Many long lunches, extravagant presents and holidays will be over, but maybe we can start rebuilding a solid and transparent democracy.

*Laura Alcaide Zugaza is a Development Economist, Researcher and Board of DECIDE (www.decide-ongd.org)

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