World / Reporter's Journal

The tough battle with the army of American lobbyists

By Chen Weihua (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-04-08 11:21

The political TV drama series, House of Cards, has offered a Hollywood approach to US politics little known to the vast majority of Chinese.

However, most Chinese don't get a sense of a unique creature in US politics, especially in Washington. It is the huge army of lobbyists.

In China, these people trying to buy influence would be immediately associated with bribery and corruption, just like what Chinese words guanxi (connections) and houmen (back door) suggest. But in Washington, lobbying is a legal profession, consisting of mostly lawyers.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the number of registered lobbyists in the US was 12,278 in 2013, the lowest number since 2002. But a February story in the weekly magazine The Nation, quoted American University professor James Thurber, an expert on Congressional lobbying, as saying that the real number is believed to be closer to 100,000.

At the same time, although Center for Responsive Politics figures show that total lobbying spending stayed at $3.2 billion in 2013, the real figure is estimated at closer to $9 billion.

Many retired government officials, Congressmen and Congressional staffers have become extremely active and influential in Washington, except now they are working for consulting firms, public relations agencies, think tanks and interest groups. Many of them make multi-million dollars a year.

The K Street, a notorious nickname for the lobby industry, is filled with firms headed by former senior officials from US government entities, such as the State department, Pentagon and Treasury department.

The transition through the revolving door is often surprisingly smooth and seamless. For example, an official that journalists interviewed just weeks earlier retired and quickly became a head of a consulting firm. And his board members are entirely former senior government officials.

US President Barack Obama has vented his frustration about lobbyists over the years and tried to ban registered lobbyists serving on government advisory panels. Nevertheless, lobbyists have fought back at Obama by arguing such a ban violates the freedom of speech in the US Constitution. They should have the right to petition the government, they say.

Data released in previous years also showed that Obama himself was not immune from the lobbyist influence. Many visitors to the White House in past years were lobbyists peddling their influence.

Many lobbyists have tried to wield influence over lawmakers by helping the fundraising for the re-elections, which is believed to contribute to the dysfunctional politics in Washington. So even Jon Huntsman, former US ambassador to China and now chairman of the think tank Atlantic Council, recently suggested term limits for lawmakers so that their primary concern won't be the endless campaign for re-election.

Public resentment of lobbyists in the US is obvious. Readers of the recent article in The Nation talked about how disgusted they feel about those lobbyists.

"It's become increasingly clear our government is rotten to its core," said one reader. "Sickening and disheartening," said the other, after reading the article: Where All the Lobbyists Have Gone.

Watching the hearings in the Congress from time to time, you can almost feel that some lawmakers are surrounded by ghosts of lobbyists.

In the past decades, many US lobbying firms have not only branched out into China, but also flourished by cashing in on the increasing intertwined relationship between the two countries.

So when the Commerce department decides to initiative countervailing duties on Chinese products, as it has done many times in the past, it is almost certain that some powerful lobbyists have been working hard.

Or when a senior Pentagon official exaggerates the threat of China, it may well be that certain defense industry firms would benefit from hundreds of billions of dollars of arms contract to counter China's influence.

Some Chinese companies, such as Huawei, have fallen prey to US lobbyists when they were labeled as a possible national security threat.

Regardless if this is part of the American exceptionalism, it seems that Chinese companies and China as a whole are going to pay a high cost to deal with the House of Cards in Washington.

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(China Daily USA 04/08/2014 page2)

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