To put it short: lobbying is an industry in the U.S. In order to comprehend it you must first understand that absolutely everyone, and everything, has a lobbyist in Washington. Trade unions, corporations, NGOs, associations, states and religions all have their own representatives on Capitol Hill. Even foreign countries, including Finland, lobby the Congress, sometimes buying influence through think tanks as was recently revealed by the New York Times. In addition, lobbying doesn’t happen only at the federal level but covers all layers of the U.S. political system from the state and local levels to the national and even international ones.
Lobbying has been the talk of the town in Helsinki for the past two years, but how is lobbying viewed in the U.S.? Most people still conceive of lobbying as a “dirty” word. Because of the negative baggage, what were previously know as simple lobbyists are nowadays calling themselves public interest advocates, legislative agents or policy advisers. The stigma of lobbying is perhaps most visible when looking at the numbers. Currently some 12, 300 people are registered as lobbyists in Washington while it is estimated that the actual number of people engaged in lobbying might be closer to 100, 000. That’s quite a substantial difference of almost 90, 000 people seeking to influence decision-makers “under the radar”.
If the stigma related with lobbying is just as alive in Finland as it is in the U.S., self-regulation and transparency seem to be where we fair better than our American colleagues. In Finland the debate on whether or not lobbyists should have to register by law is only beginning but already self-regulatory measures are popping up. Last spring 50 MPs held voluntary lobbying diaries that were later published by Yle, and ProCom has initiated its own register of lobbyists.
Regulation aside, what strikes me as the single biggest difference between Finnish and U.S. lobbying is the role of money in politics. For example, over $2 billion have already been spent in the November 4 midterm election, which is expected to become the most expensive midterm ever, possibly topping $4 billion. Big campaign money can buy big influence and everyone wants his or her share of the future cake. Needless to say, campaign budgets are a lot smaller in Finland and even the few campaign finance irregularities we have had pale in comparison. More importantly, there really is no need to buy influence or access in Finland – our society and political system are very open and transparent as it is.
While regulation remains high on the agenda for lobbying in Finland, the number of lobbyists is somewhat surprisingly decreasing in the U.S. Also total lobbying spending is at a halt – some say because of the economic situation while others point to record-breaking campaign funding. Interestingly, also more women are entering the field of lobbying, a world traditionally dominated by men. All in all, it seems that the traditional field of lobbying is looking for new operating models in the U.S. while in Finland lobbying is still growing and developing – on its own terms for the time being. Only time will tell if regulation is the key to transparency or if examples from the U.S. and elsewhere will push us to look for new ways to approach lobbying.
The writer recently spend three weeks in the U.S. on an International Visitor Leadership Program familiarizing with current U.S. social, political and economic issues along with a group of eight other young European leaders.
Author: Laura Kyyrö