Lobbying : A menace or Necessity for democracy?

Lobbying: A Menace or Necessity for Democracy? Exposition 2.
Mohammad Akhtar,Ph.D,
President of MCA

Lobbying is an American phenomenon, which is new to Muslim migrants. They find it novel but more than that, they find it puzzling. We know bribery is wrong and illegal because an individual gives money to another individual for self- serving purpose that is against the collective interests. But in a similar way, if an individual or group gives money to another individual or group that is similarly counter to the interests of the larger segment of society, it should be equally wrong or illegal, regardless of the money involved being a big amount and given openly rather than secretly as done in bribery. If it is small money transacted between two people, it is considered theft. If it is millions of dollars transacted openly between two groups who are equipped with arms, should we not call them robbers too, based on the nature of their activity that is in violation of the interests of the society at large? May be there is something missing here that is the source of confusion; for we all know bribery is considered wrong but lobbying is legal. Giving money to buy votes (indirectly speaking) or influencing the passage of legislation, by direct use of money is quite all right, in a country which is highlighted for its democracy all over the world, is quite puzzling to me, I must admit. But this is the reality and fact about the country we live in.

My thoughts go back to the period in Islamic history considered exemplary when the citizens enjoyed true democracy, equality, accountability of people in authority. It was during the days of the Caliph Omar Ibn Khattab in Medina, roughly about1400 years ago. During those days, Omar was known to patrol the streets at night to check how people were doing. He would hold himself responsible if he found people going to bed hungry. Pages of history are filled with episodes when he was openly confronted by women (talk of women in Islam being second class citizens) for wrongdoing on his part. But today we cannot imagine our President, or our Police Chief in the role of Caliph Omar Ibn Khattab who was the true ruler with true democratic spirit.

However, we still need to understand how leaders are elected in this great democratic nation. Why is lobbying such a big part of election campaigns? Let’s take a look at how the lobby mechanism operates during elections in America:

Money Factor

One of the biggest reality of the election has to do with MONEY and lots of money. It has less to do with goodness of spirit. What the voters get to know is very little of the real candidate but has lot to do with the image of the person that is predominantly defined by the media and TV in particular, that eats the chunk of the budget, What is selected for the TV and written for the speeches is up to the professionals and not left to the person. They cost money. Then the individual candidate has to be on the campaign trail, may be for a year or so. For this he requires money for travel, maintenance; and perhaps he has to say good bye to his regular job. The total cost would approach millions of dollars. How many candidates would be able to fund themselves? Maybe In certain cases super rich candidates can take care of their own finances. Yet, the question remains, does this represent a true sample of democracy?

Personal Agenda of Lobbyists

What really is democracy? Is it an ideal or some practical contingency? It’s a known fact that lobbyists give money to the candidate to influence and serve their own agenda. It is clear that the money they give adds an extraneous factor to legislations that are passed and also to the candidate’s professed goals, to say the least, if it does not sharply conflict. That extraneous factor is counter to democracy and is added to serve one’s own vested interests. However money transaction Is justified as serving a secondary need that is a necessity, which would be left unmet without lobbying. A simple illustration would be that money is a necessity without which a certain political program would not take off, for which lobbying money paves the way.

Role of Donors

The issue is when the total cost per candidate for the Presidential election is in millions, how do you take care of it? The candidate bears some responsibility, the political party of the candidate takes care of some, and private donors contribute to the candidates and to the party accounts. Donors bet on candidates and want them to win. Why? Just to see the implementation of good programs through the right candidate that the country needs. In the early days, elections and the societies were simple. The costs were reasonable. The candidates could take care of them with the help of friends. Then came political parties and individual donors with increased roles and increased power that came as a package.

In today’s scenario, of the three partners, the donors seem to be very enthusiastic to give money directly to the candidates rather than giving to the parties - understandably because it empowers them with the sense of direct control

Is there restriction for the donors?

Now the question arises, for the sake of lobbying, how much money can a donor give to the candidate? This became a concern and Federal Election Commission intervened and restricted the amount that could be donated to the individual candidate. This began in 1972. The Commission had a legitimate concern. With high amount of donations, donors are likely to oblige the candidate with high amount of money that is desperately needed. The candidate after all has invested himself tooth and nail to win the election. Under this obligation the candidate is more than willing to return the favor and carry out the “command” even if the donor mentions it discreetly as his wish, to serve the personal agenda which deviates and even conflicts with national interests and the political agenda of the parties.

The case of Shaun McCutcheon

In 2012,there was an issue brought out by Shaun McCutcheon, a super rich Republican who wanted to give $1,776 to each of 28 candidates. That was disallowed because it exceeded the aggregate limit of $48,600 and therefore was against the law. The law is legitimate and is in place to protect the undue influence of donations notably when the influence is intensive either when high donations given to one person or is not too high but is given to 28 candidates, as in the case of Shaun McCutcheon case.

To an average person like me and to hundreds and thousands of people who are sincere to democracy - it makes a lot of sense, we need that protection. But the case was filed as McCutcheon and Republican National Committee Vs Federal Election Commission to the Supreme Court because it challenged the restriction of the individual’s right under Constitution Amendment 1. The decision of the Court came out recently in April. But in February, Richard L. Hasen, Professr of Political Science at University of California, anticipated the decision correctly based on the two Chief Justices who are known as conservatives. To quote Professor Hassen

“If previous campaign finance cases in the Roberts-Alito era are any indication, the court will rule in McCutcheon’s favor and strike down the federal aggregate limits” Given that prospect, he further wrote, “I too am troubled by the prospect of an awful decision that would clear the way for more corruption.”

Abolition of Limits

The breaking news came out in April giving the decision of the Supreme Court abolishing the aggregate limits of donations. Donors can give any amounts of donation as they please - that is the Constitutional right of an individual. As an activist phrased, “It nailed the coffin of democracy.” Some political experts analyzed it and pointed one side benefit of it all. It will strengthen the political parties. With bigger powers, they have more at stake and would act more responsibly and stage less gridlocks. ”Strong political parties have more incentive to cooperate than oppose each other under certain circumstances because they care about their electoral prospects.”

Role of Activists

Taking such a pragmatic view, who is to say that the benefit would exceed the harm of killing democracy? I know my own personal preference but I leave it up to the readers to decide theirs. The advantage of huge number is on the side of restriction of the donations. Activists know it and are making good use by organizing protests under organization of Citizens for Democracy, and various local affiliates, such as “Move On” in Florida. They plan 150 events to protest that they know what is going on. Nobody expects violence or breaking things in these demonstrations.

This is what I love about American temperament, call it pragmatism of a sort, not getting too excited and carried away unlike what idealists tend to do, I admire it. Some of these activists have expressed calmly and rightly that, “we cannot do anything against the Supreme Court’s decision until Liberal justices come in, (we know they will come). For right now we can demonstrate and show what thousands and thousands of people think about important issue like lobbying.” They have several activities planned.

To highlight their key message, there is a plaque that catches my attention:

DEMOCRACY IS NOT FOR SALE

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