The Guest Blog

The following article has been sent to Blogactiv by Dr Conor McGrath.

It is not a novel idea to note the paradox that while we know more about interest groups in the United States (US) than in any other political system, America is an exceptional case. Lobbying is different in the US for reasons of historical constitutionalism, scope and scale, political culture, and institutional design. A point less often made is that lobbying is different everywhere, for similar reasons. Each nation has an exceptional interest group system. That is not to say that lobbying techniques and tactics are not similar in most locations, for they are. In every interest group community – to greater or lesser extents and to greater or lesser degrees of effectiveness – lobbyists talk directly to policy-makers, join coalitions, stimulate grassroots efforts, undertake policy research and frame policy issues, use the media to advance issues, and so on. These activities, if not entirely universal, are quite common. What is exceptional about every lobbying environment is the political, cultural and institutional framework within which those ubiquitous activities occur.

The range of entry points by which lobbyists can access the policy-making process, the existence or absence of lobbying regulations, the funding of political parties and electoral campaigns, the autonomy and expertise of bureaucracies, term limits on elected office-holders, the openness of government towards civil society, the capacity of the judicial system to challenge official decisions – all these, and more factors, determine the scope of interest group behavior.

To take one instance, that of lobbying regulation, it is clear that the presence or absence of a regulatory regime conditions the activities of lobbyists. Indeed, that is the fundamental purpose of such regulation. Among the nations examined in this collection we see an extraordinary spectrum in this regard – from most Latin American nations in which lobbying is entirely unregulated, through systems like the United Kingdom where (a minority of) lobbyists have attempted to exercise some form of self-regulation and like the European Union where a new voluntary and rather loosely defined model of regulation has been recently introduced, on to nations such as Lithuania which have enacted lobbying reforms with significant flaws in their subsequent implementation, right up to quite precise and strict statutory regulation in the United States. The practical impact of these alternatives is explored in individual chapters, and in such a brief overview as this it is still necessary to note that many Latin American lobbyists may behave with utter propriety while some US lobbyists will deliberately break every rule, but nevertheless it remains true that regulation is an area which varies enormously around the world and in which those variations will shape the general pattern of lobbying behavior. Lobbying is different in the UK as compared with Brazil, Lithuania or the United States, in part because of the different modes of regulation.

Another example, the nature of the state-civil society relationship, further illustrates the point. Interest groups thrive in the US partially as a direct result of the constitutional right to freedom of association, which guarantees that individuals may coalesce in organizations to promote their self-interest. The European Union institutions combine both a philosophical belief in the virtue of public participation and engagement with a practical need to lean on the expertise of outside groups in formulating policy. In France there is an ingrained tradition of state authoritarianism and a more conflictual and splintered relationship between the state and private actors, which contrasts with the German corporatist tradition of formal involvement with policy institutions by external interests. The pattern of state-society relations in Russia has been enormously varied over the last three decades as successive rulers have sought to redefine the balance of power between a host of competing interests. As the nations of Central and Eastern Europe have transitioned towards democracy, many of them tended initially to develop corporatist-style arrangements which encouraged the formation of sectoral associations which enjoyed a monopoly on interest representation in their area, but a more recent trend towards pluralist competition between associations is becoming apparent. Most Latin American nations were actively hostile to the emergence of interest groups until relatively recently. In Malawi, the state has at times colluded with (select) economic interests and at other times entirely dominated the private sector; no consistent or sustained pattern of healthy state-society relations has yet emerged. Tensions are clear in the Iranian debate over the respective roles of reform movements and established religious interests. Organized interests in China often simultaneously compete against and cooperate with the government in a unique political economy. The public-private boundary remains blurred in Japan, where hierarchical structures and dominant elites exist alongside informal personal and financial relationships within policy-making processes. It can be difficult for an outsider to tell where interest groups end and government begins in Macao, as government retains the formal power to forbid the formation of particular groups and where local political autonomy remains firmly subservient to national authority, yet inside Macao the government is dominated by a few hugely influential interest groups which have essentially captured local government. Again, such disparity makes it impossible to generalize about the proper role of interest groups – every political system is different, and so every lobbying or interest representation system is different. But it is certain that institutional arrangements matter enormously to lobbying behavior.

If we cannot generalize about lobbying, what scholars can certainly do much more of is to examine a wider range of individual cases than tends to be true of the existing literature. I have recently edited a three-volume collection:

• Interest Groups & Lobbying in the United States and Comparative Perspectives
• Interest Groups and Lobbying in Europe
• Interest Groups & Lobbying in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia

Since it has over 40 chapters on dozens of nations, the full range of content cannot be summarized here. However, several chapters make observations which may be particularly pertinent to readers of BlogActiv.

The opportunities and constraints which political systems provide to lobbyists in the US and EU are the focus of a piece by Irina Michalowitz. Institutional design and policy-making processes are key to determining both which tactics lobbyists will employ and the influence which organized interests will be able to exert over policy outcomes. Moreover, Michalowitz observes that the more representative a political system is and the more open it is to interests, the greater the danger that policy can be “captured” by lobbyists. This conundrum – that lobbying may paradoxically be less problematic in weak democracies – is a real issue which deserves more thorough consideration than it has thus far received.

Craig Holman reports on his survey of lobbyists in both Washington and Brussels. In both locations, significant lobbying reforms have been introduced recently – the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in the US, and the European Transparency Initiative launched in 2008. Holman finds substantial differences in attitudes towards reform measures between the two cohorts of lobbyists. However, while US lobbyists are consistently more agreeable to regulation than are their EU counterparts, it is also true that Brussels lobbyists appear to be less implacably opposed to increased transparency than was commonly thought to be the case. Gary Murphy, Raj Chari and John Hogan compare the attitudes towards regulation of around 400 lobbying actors in the US, Canada, Germany and the EU. In a series of results which will prove interesting for lobbyists and policy-makers in those nations which are considering introducing lobbying reforms, Murphy et al conclude that in these four jurisdictions which already have lobbying regulations in place there is strong support for the regulatory regimes.

Didier Chabanet provides a very useful perspective on the often-overlooked “intergroups” which offer organized interests a relatively informal route of influence within the European Parliament, and reflects on the potential impact of ETI on the future legitimacy of interest representation at an EU level. Christine Quittkat’s chapter looks at how national trade associations in France and Germany adapt to interest representation at an EU level, drawing on a survey of 402 associations. She finds that while associations in both countries undertake a wide range of largely similar functions on behalf of their members, there are some significant differences in their representation of political interests. Adaptation to the EU policy-making process has been more problematic for French associations than for their German counterparts. Caelesta Poppelaars examines the extent and nature of the organized interest group community in the Netherlands. She offers an interesting perspective on the problems – which are common in many nations – of reliably defining interest groups and then identifying and sampling the interest group population. Comparing the characteristics of those interest groups which are known to policy-makers with those of all groups (including groups with which policy-makers are not necessarily familiar) reveals patterns of both access to policy-makers and non-engagement with government. In so doing, Poppelaars is able to highlight policy domains in which groups are more, or less, listened to by policy-makers.

In their chapter on interest representation in Lithuania, Ron Hrebenar, Clive Thomas, Courtney McBeth and Bryson Morgan have assembled a fascinating wealth of data which illuminates the obstacles which currently stand in the way of the development of a sophistical interest group system there. Civil society in Lithuania remains relatively weak, with continuing hangovers from the Communist era, public perceptions of lobbying and lobbyists are strongly negative, lobbying tactics are unsophisticated, and there are high levels of corruption. Igor Vida?ak traces the post-Communist development of an interest group system in Croatia, and finds that the prospect of EU membership has presented both opportunities and challenges to the Croatian lobbying community. A new group set up in June 2008 to help professionalize the Croatian lobbying industry has produced a code of conduct under which its members operate, and is pushing for statutory regulation of lobbying and a register of lobbyists. And Annika Uudelepp examines the role played by interest groups in the drafting of regulations through secondary legislation in Estonia. Four regulations in different policy niches are used to test differences in the participation by and influence of interest organizations. While variations were quite wide across the cases, Uudelepp explains clearly the structural and institutional factors which affect the outcome of group involvement in regulatory drafting.

The three volumes have just been published, and if any reader would like to contact me on for more information, I would be very happy to send them on full tables of contents along with an order form which allows practitioners and scholars to purchase each book at less than half price.

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