The Lobbying Lobotomy

Severing the link between the government and the people

Movie poster for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). Credit: United Artist / Fantasy Films

Not all wars are fought on the battleground. Today, many of them are political. Soldiers with the strongest economic sponsors win. Combat arms don’t bring out their machine guns or bazookas anymore. Silent but just as deadly, they bring out their suits and their cash. Then, they sneak into the obscure halls of the national Congress and use every tactic at hand to sway the law in their favor, checkmating civilians.

There’s a name for this: lobbying, a form of advocacy that aims to influence governmental decisions. Legend has it that the practice stems from President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, way back when political advocates could easily get ahold of him by hanging out at the hotel lobby. By allowing agents to bring political issues to the forefront, one could argue that lobbying indeed served its democratic purpose at the time. But the idea gained traction and grew into a monstrous industry, one whose return on investment is exponential compared to any other financial instrument.

Lobbyists are hired by a special interest group to represent its stance to the government. Many types of people, associations, and organized groups pay money to pass or defeat legislation in this way. But it’s the individuals working for big, swanky corporations who usually take the cake.

Today, corporate lobbyists have our politicians eating off the palm of their hands. By undermining the core values of democracy, this practice effectively performs a lobotomy in society, betraying those of us who entrust the government with our wellbeing.

A lobotomy is an outdated procedure that surgically severs connections in one’s brain to treat a mental disorder. It has negative side effects on a patient’s personality, empathy, and ability to function on their own. Remember McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? His post-lobotomy state is that of a vegetable, and that’s not even the worse part when it comes to the grand finale — but no spoilers here.

The lobbying lobotomy has similar side effects on our species. In a world where the government fails to stand up for its people, society ends up suffering from personality distortions and a lack of empathy. The erosion of social cohesion turns our kind into greedy, angry, and violent beings. We become unable to function on our own as our public health, safety, and education are wrecked by wealthy puppeteers who manipulate the law.

Like in a lobotomy, corporate lobbying lacerates the connection between the people and their government. What was once a trusted enforcer of democratic values has become a sellout. Millions of dollars are poured into the political system, twisting policies meant to ensure our wellbeing to maximize profits to shareholders. Our ties to democracy have been so weakened that we watch in a catatonic state, conceding to this behavior.

Of course, lobbyists can’t pay politicians directly. That would be bribery. But, because the entire world of politics is funded by private donors, special interest groups can, for instance, throw a politician a fundraiser and collect a big check for his campaign. In a way, they can wine-and-dine legislators into supporting their causes.

There's also a little thing called the "revolving door," which plagues the public sector. It’s become a rule rather than an exception: politicians are commonly offered multi-million dollar salaries working as professional lobbyists after their time in office. In other words, the private sector gets even more leverage to buy influence and access to legislators.

Big Tech Turns Its Lobbyists Loose on Europe, Alarming Regulators. Image by: Jack Taylor / The New York Times

Today, it's Big Tech that dominates the lobbying scene, having eclipsed Big Oil and Big Tobacco. Amazon and Facebook are now the largest corporate lobbying spenders in America [1].

In recent years, GAFA as a whole has been under scrutiny for exploiting its workers, harming small businesses, and endangering our privacy. Known for harvesting user data for profit, they also facilitate all sorts of discrimination, unbeknownst to their users. [2] [3] As if that weren’t enough, they wield unparalleled influence over the world’s so-called democratic processes. [4]

Big Tech’s lobbyists are the most influential in D.C. and have handed money to nearly all members of Congress with jurisdiction over privacy and antitrust issues. This Washingtonization is spreading to the EU, although lawmakers are much warier of the industry’s influence in Brussels.

When it seems like the government isn’t working for the public, one of the best explanations is that it’s being effectively bribed, most often by lobbyists. In his Gettysburg Address, Abe Lincoln pledged that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth. But, news flash — it perished a long time ago! Now it’s a government of the sheep, by the lobbyists, for the impotent.

Yes, lobbying is legal in many countries and it can be a positive force in democracy by bringing issues to the political eye. Lobbyists can represent the interests of citizens who lack access to the government. But that doesn’t mean they do. Lobbying has become a mechanism adopted by powerful groups who wish to influence laws and regulations. And it’s all done at the public's expense. The result is unfair influence, competition, and policymaking to the detriment of the public’s welfare.

Take the case of public health v. Big Food, Big Soda, Big Alcohol, and Big Tobacco. [5] At heart, they oppose the prevention of non-communicable diseases, which include most heart diseases, cancers, respiratory illnesses, and diabetes. Governments have emerged as key promoters of healthier diets, and the industry hates it. The adoption of menu labeling laws to facilitate better consumer choices, warning labels, and sin taxes are all examples of regulations the industry despises.

So, these giant economic players fight their common enemy with various tactics. Not only do they lobby like there’s no tomorrow, but they also attack local governments with lawsuits, fund their own biased research, and donate to worthy causes. As in total warfare, civilians become disoriented and confused. Profit maximization is the goal of big corporations, so forget our health and livelihoods; pushing garbage into our bodies is where it’s at.

Converting dollars into influence truly is one of the greatest democratic deficits of our time. Not only does it place our health on the line, but also that of our planet.

Every year, the world’s top meat and dairy producers and oil and gas giants spend millions of dollars campaigning against climate change. They sow doubts about the links between their industries and global warming, hinder climate-friendly regulation, and support moves such as Trump’s decision to drill into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. They publicly support climate action and secretly lobby against binding policies.

It’s all about delaying, controlling, or blocking policies that tackle climate change. A new NYU study estimates that, between 2000 and 2019, U.S. agribusinesses’ expenditure on lobbying was $2.5 billion, and that of energy and natural resource companies was $6.2 billion. [6]

That same year, 2019, the world was appalled at Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s apathy to the Amazon fires in north Brazil. A carbon sink of sorts, the rainforest absorbs large amounts of CO2 that would otherwise be absorbed by the atmosphere. It plays a key role in regulating the world’s carbon and oxygen cycles.

The international community blamed it on the region’s profit-driven agendas, but the president blamed it on self-sabotaging environmental NGOs. Truth is, the farming industry’s lobbying had a huge part in the wildfires by purposely loosening the current administration’s restrictions on deforestation. [7] Practices such as this one have stymied governments around the world in devising tangible targets to meet the Paris Agreement.

We all know we live in a system that benefits those with the most money. But it’s baffling to know that such practices are accepted and encouraged, legally intertwining money and politics in a nasty way.

Jair Bolsonaro claimed ‘the Amazon is not on fire' (Aug. 2019). Photo by: Victor Moriyama / Getty Images

Does that mean lobbying should be illegal? Perhaps in a parallel world. But we’re in way too deep. Criminalizing lobbying is not the solution.

In many a country, lobbying is a constitutional right for a simple reason: it allows constituents to bring issues front and center, making governments more likely to address concerns that have a lot of the community’s support. In an ideal world, every citizen would be able to lobby for quality public healthcare or a decent universal basic income. But, let's be realists: money and politics became inseparable, and things got ugly.

Today, one can only influence political decisions by shoving fistfuls of cash into their Representatives asses. Few of us have that kind of capital. Although not corrupt by nature, the lobbying industry is an open invitation to all things corruption, allowing those with undue socioeconomic power to tamper with the law in favor of their own interests.

That should not be legal. The public’s well-being takes center stage. Not money. We have to rebalance the asymmetry between the public's best interest and that of special interest groups.

The solution is to disentangle money from politics, particularly when it comes to lobbying. Yes, it’s easier said than done. But there are ways to do it. [8]

We can and should limit lobbying donations to politicians — or even stop the funding altogether. There's no reason legislators should be allowed to take money from the special interest groups they are employed to regulate.

And the revolving door needs to be closed, ASAP. When a politician is devoted to the public sector, it should be out of benevolence, and not for the future monetary gains associated with someday using his connections in the private sector. This also means they should be banned from owning stocks while in office, neutralizing potential conflicts of interest.

Besides, no campaign should be privately funded, which is a challenge to most country's political systems. They should be publicly funded and kept to a minimum; candidates shouldn't have a higher chance of winning simply because they have a snazzier campaign.

Lastly, the entire process is overdue for some transparency. The Brookings Institution recommends the creation of an online platform that serves as the de facto forum for all public policy advocacy. By allowing anyone to make their case on the page instead of having to hire an army of lobbyists, it levels the playing field. Because arguments are made public, it also increases transparency and accountability, resulting in a more democratic way of pushing public policy. [9]

Like with any other revamped system, this one, too, runs the risk of being gamed. But the risks of doing nothing are much greater and may just lead to our civilization's downfall, especially in what concerns the survival of our planet.

I'll admit I'm no political science expert, but I do know the whole thing is rigged against the people. And I'm sick of it. Our governments should protect us from radical commercial interests, not the other way around. We need to regain control of our democratic process. We must take action and fight for due representation, and there's no time like the present.

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Footnotes:

[1] “Big Tech, Big Cash: Washington’s New Power Players.Public Citizen.

[2] Benner, Katie, et al. “Facebook Engages in Housing Discrimination With Its Ad Practices, U.S. Says" The New York Times.

[3] Merrill, Jeremy B., et al. "Google Has Been Allowing Advertisers to Exclude Nonbinary People from Seeing Job Ads" The Markup.

[4] “The Great Hack.Netflix Official Site, 24 July 2019,

The Great Hack https://www.netflix.com/title/80117542

[5] Sarah A. Roache, Charles Platkin, Lawrence O. Gostin & Cara Kaplan. Big Food and Soda Versus Public Health: Industry Litigation Against Local Government Regulations to Promote Healthy Diets, 45 Fordham Urb. L.J. 1051–1089 (2018).

[6] Gustin, Georgina. "Big Meat and Dairy Companies Have Spent Millions Lobbying Against Climate Action, a New Study Finds" Inside Climate News.

[7] Dantas, Carolina. "71% das queimadas em imóveis rurais neste ano na Amazônia ocorreram para manejo agropecuário, diz IPAM" Globo.

[8] Sozan, Michael et al. "10 Far-Reaching Congressional Ethics Reforms to Strengthen U.S. Democracy" Center for American Progress

[9] Drutman, Lee. A Better Way to Fix Lobbying, Issues in Governance Studies, Number 40 (2011).

Writer, practical idealist, and mom. Reimagining society one word at a time ✌🏽 Instagram @RebelThinkrs