Attempts to exert political influence can reflect a myriad of different strategies. Private actors can either try to influence the policymaker directly, through personal contacts, consultation procedures, written statements or financial contributions, or they can seek to influence public opinion in order to change the position of policymakers, for example, through media campaigns, law suits or grassroots strategies. Such indirect influence is referred to as outside lobbying, opposed to the inside lobbying of those that have direct access to the policymakers (Maloney et al, 1994; Kollman, 1998). Even though the lobbying industry in the EU has expanded considerably in the last 20 years and appears to be largely comparable to the US, important differences remain between the two. The following section will review differences in development and style.
US lobbying: Lawyers and money?
The US is generally considered the birthplace of professional lobbying as a political phenomenon, and the wealth of studies testifies to the fact that it has become a ubiquitous part of US politics at all levels of decision-making (for systematic surveys see Milbrath, 1963; Heinz et al, 1993; Gray and Lowery, 1996; Baumgartner and Leech, 1998).
Despite the mistrust of special interest that dates back to Madison's Federalist Papers, lobbying is an accepted or endured political tradition in American politics. In fact, the right to communicate special interests is firmly anchored in the US constitution, where the First Amendment protects the right of the people to ‘petition the government for redress of grievances’. Lobbying is considered part of such political participation and therefore is considered to constitute an element of free speech. However, observers quickly realized that not all interests present in society would be able to organize themselves to influence the political process, in particular these normative reservations expanded following Mancur Olson's (1965) work on collective action problems.
To preserve the right to participate while at the same limiting potential abuse and biased influence, regulation of lobbying in the US therefore tended to emphasize transparency, but shied away from heavy intervention. Rules on lobbying were considered in every Congress after 1911 but were not approved until 1946. The 1946 law aimed at disclosure, making lobbyists register their name and spending. After a report found the requirements to be completely ineffective in 1995, Congress approved a number of changes, most notably broadening the definition of lobbying, reinforcing the requirements and tightening lobbying from foreign interests. Only 10 years later, a scandal surrounding the lobbyist Jack Abramoff led to the 2006 Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act, which specified in great detail what kind of gifts were considered as inappropriate.Footnote 1 The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 continued to detail restrictions and disclosure requirements applying to public officials. Through this recent series of reforms, the US is today one of the most tightly regulated lobbying industries in the world (Chari et al, 2010).
Increasing regulation reflects the growth of lobbying over the years, both by interests groups, firms and professional lobbyists. Associations representing special interests predate direct representation and their number grew remarkably in the last 50 years. In 1955, there were about 5000 national associations; in 1975, there were 13 000; by 2000 there were more than 23 000 national associations – along with more than 64 000 regional, state and local associations. A large number of these associations represent economic interests. Nonetheless, companies increasingly choose to have a direct representation as well: between the 1920s and today, their number of firms that have permanent offices in Washington DC has climbed from 1 to over 600 (Baumgartner and Leech, 1998, pp. 102–105; Herrnson et al, 1998, pp. 7–9). As the maintenance of government affairs offices is costly, the vast majority of US companies do not maintain offices in Washington, but instead chose to hire a representative from a lobbying firm or a law firm specialized in public affairs. This practice is very common in the US and almost gained mythical status through literature and films.Footnote 2 However, unlike popular impressions, employing a ‘hired gun’ is only common for companies that do little lobbying on a regular basis or companies that want to tackle a particularly difficult legal matter. Companies that interact regularly with the US government tend to have in-house representatives, even though they might employ both (Heinz et al, 1993, p. 65). According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a think tank publishing the most comprehensive data on lobbying activities and expenditures in the US, over 12 000 registered lobbyists – from associations, firms and lobbying firms – actively lobbied at the federal level in 2011, spending a total of US $2.46 billion in campaign contributions and donations.Footnote 3
Financial contributions are probably the most noted and distinctive aspect of US lobbying activities. They can be divided into three categories: gifts, ‘soft money’ and campaign financing. While gifts, dinners, theatre trips and vacations used to be common, honoraria for lawmakers have been abolished and all but nominal gifts are prohibited. ‘Soft money’ refers to donations made to political parties, not to the candidates, supposed to be used only for party-building activities, not for direct campaign support. Of all forms of financial contributions, campaign financing has received the most attention. Unlike individuals, companies and labor unions cannot make direct contributions, but are required to form Political Action Committees (PACs) through which they can contribute (Herrnson, 1998; Rozell and Wilcox, 1999). Both hard and soft financial contributions are well documented. Not only do PACs need to register according to issues and contributions, there are also several encyclopedias and web sites who collect and publish this information.Footnote 4
Much of the lobbying activities are carried out by lawyers, not only because the job requires familiarity with the writing and interpretation of bills, but also because interest groups may rely on legal strategies to defend their cause. In the most high profile cases, interest groups file suits in state and federal court in the hope of overturning a law as unconstitutional. This strategy has been used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for example, which successfully challenged segregation laws. More commonly, groups can file complaints against public authorities, challenge changes in administrative rule making or write amicus curiae briefs to influence court cases when they are not parties to the suit. Still, the persistent threat of legal proceedings is common, and leads many observers to describe the Washington lobbying style as adversarial.
If money and legal affairs are the most noted aspects of lobbying in Washington DC, a survey of the allocation of time of government affairs representatives reveals that the most amount of daily work is spent elsewhere.Footnote 5 A government affairs official spends about 30 per cent of her time on organization duties, which include informing the company about activities in the capital and organizing working groups or other activities. Sixty per cent of time is actually spent on federal policy issues, but most often, this refers to maintaining the contact with government official, going to meetings, following hearings or the work of subcommittees of Congress (Heinz et al, 1993, pp. 87–104). The daily work of Washington lobbyists thus seems much less glamorous than one might expect.
EU lobbying: Expert knowledge and multi-level representation
Although interest groups have been at the heart of early studies on the European project, the bulk of writing on EU lobbying followed the re-launch of integration in the mid-1980s. With the simultaneous growth of interest group participation at the supranational level, the most extensive number of studies of lobbying has revolved around new and old forms of interest representation in the EU (Kirchner, 1981; Greenwood et al, 1992; Van Schendelen, 1993; Bindi, 1994; Pedler and Van Schendelen, 1994; Aspinwall and Greenwood, 1998; Claeys et al, 1998). Systematic studies of lobbying are most often used as a means of understanding the new political structure that emerges and the system of governance it creates (Schmitter and Streeck, 1991; Mazey and Richardson, 1993; Kohler-Koch and Eising, 1999; Balme et al, 2002). More recent studies have investigated the strategies used by special interest to participate at the different policy levels, relying increasingly on large N-studies (cf. Woll, 2006; Coen, 2007; De Bièvre and Dür, 2007; Beyers et al, 2008).
In contrast to the US, political activities of private actors have traditionally been much more suspect in Europe. Especially, in France and the Southern European countries, interest groups seem to represent ‘a deviation of the proper functioning of the State and the political system’ (Offerle, 1994; Basso, 1997, p. 39). The representation of economic interests is carried out by associations and peak associations, who have a much more central standing in the political system of their home countries than their American counterparts.
The Commission estimates that more than 2600 interest groups are active in Brussels today, with a significant portion representing economic interests (Coen, 2002, p. 258). In the course of the last 25 years, economic interest representation evolved from associational representation only to include direct firm representation, most notably at the European level (Cowles, 1998; Coen, 1999). Between 1985 and 1997, more than 350 businesses decide to establish government affairs offices in Brussels and national peak associations increase the number of employees working on European affairs. All in all, the lobbying industry employs around 15 000 people in Brussels, and has a budget of roughly 60–90 million euros (European Parliament, 2003). Five thousand of the lobbyists are officially registered by the European Parliament.Footnote 6
The regulation of lobbying in the EU is much less developed than in the US. Early attempts in the late 1990s encouraged voluntary registration by lobbyists and public disclosure standards for members of parliament. To avoid further regulation, public affairs associations in Europe published codes of conduct for their members. In 2005, the Commission esteemed that these rules were insufficient and proposed the European Transparency Initiative, which sought to increase registration requirements, disclosure and ethics rules and standards for public officials (see Chari et al, 2010). Still, when compared with the reporting requirements in the US, European regulation is minimal.
This is in part due to different practices. Campaign contributions, for example, do not exist at the European level and in most European countries, political campaigns rely on public funding. In fact, financial contributions even go the other way: non-profit organizations representing interests that are structurally difficult to mobilize often receive money from the European Commission. By funding and sometimes even founding these associations, the European Commission seeks to balance out the breadth of interests that can be represented at the European level (Sanchez-Salgado, 2007; Mahoney and Beckstrand, 2011).
In addition to these general differences, most scholars note that there is a distinct ‘European style’ in the daily advocacy work, made up of at least two elements. First, this European style is marked by a less aggressive and more consensual approach to political participation. Cowles (1996, pp. 345–346; 1997, p. 128) illustrates this difference well in her account of the US reaction to a social directive proposed by the European Commission.
[The directive] provoked a great deal of anxiety among American [multinational companies] with no Brussels based representatives and little prior contact with the EU. Instead of calling on the EU Committee to represent their concerns, these US firms took matters in their own hands. Armed with a plane full of Washington lawyers, the companies descended upon Brussels to confront the Eurocrats. […] The Washington approach was a public relations disaster. Appropriate for the confrontational style of lobbying common in the US, but inappropriate for the subtle Brussels approach. From 1981, the EU Committee undertook a great effort to re-establish the image of American businesses in Brussels.
Instead of confronting public officials, European lobbyists typically gain access through expert consultations. Advising the European Commission on technical policy matters has proven to be the most common and most successful mode of participation of societal actors of all kinds (Radaelli, 1995; Bouwen, 2002; Saurugger, 2002). While representatives have a chance to express their views on policy proposals, Commission officials, but also Members of the European Parliament (MAP), benefit from the technical expertise these actors can provide. The symbiosis between public officials and private interests in Europe thus hinges on the latter's constructive and informed participation.
European lobbyists also encounter difficulties when they try to adopt the US style, that is, a more aggressive mode of lobbying. An illustration is the lobbying campaign undertaken by the European oil refinery representation EUROPIA around the Auto-Oil Program of the EU. When the Commission first started working on a proposal to reduce pollution through motor vehicles in 1993, EUROPIA was able to develop a productive working relationship with the Commission to agree on the most cost effective way to reduce pollution (Corporate Europe Observatory, 1999). Once the European Parliament and later the Council rejected the Commission proposal, precisely because it seemed to be biased towards the interests of the oil industry, EUROPIA started a massive lobbying effort on the European Parliament who sought to tighten the standards to a higher level, arguing that the measure would lead to the end of oil refineries in Europe, which would ultimately costs the MEPs their job. In the debates, MEPs repeatedly refused to be bullied and suggested ‘getting a hat and collecting money for the poor oil industry’.Footnote 7 Ironically, the lobbying efforts might even explain the consensus of the European Parliament to tighten auto emission standards. According to an observer, the aggressive lobbying had an undesired result:
It completely backfired! […] to the point where the guy who was the head of EUROPIA got sent to Africa […]. They put another person and the next 5 years, this person worked really hard to try and build bridges again with everybody.Footnote 8
For both the Commission and the European Parliament, a constructive approach is more important than arguments based on threats and pressure.
A second element of European lobbying is the multi-level approach lobbyists need to adopt to press for their cause. The competency division between the European Institutions and the difference between high-level politics – decided by the Council of Ministers or even the heads of government – and low-level politics – the less politicized, bureaucratic work of the European Commission and amended by the European Parliament – require that interest representation employs a multitude of channels on any one particular issue.Footnote 9 In contrast to the US, where multi-level representation becomes necessary in particular once a policy issue shift from the state to the federal level (or back), multi-level representation is necessary on all policy issues dealt with by the EU institutions.
Most scholars have noted the complex web of representation and the superposition of regional, national and European levels of interest organization (Greenwood et al, 1992; Teuber, 2001, p. 150; Eising, 2004). On any particular issue, the multitude of channels of representation may include direct representation, national peak associations, sectoral association, European umbrella organizations or other thematic European or transnational groups. The acknowledgement of a multi-level approach of interest representation is the most general conclusion of the studies of European lobbying. While this has been of considerable inspiration to theories of European governance (Kohler-Koch and Eising, 1999; Marks and Hooghe, 2001), little has been done to evaluate the implications of this approach for the impact of groups on political decisions (for an exception, see Grande, 1996).
Comparing US and EU lobbying
The brief overview highlights the similarities and differences in lobbying in the US and the EU. Lobbying on both sides of the Atlantic has experienced a considerable boom in the last 50 years, which corresponded to the increase in the governmental activity in Washington DC and Brussels. Direct representation of companies co-exists with associational representation in both cases, even though peak association play a greater role in Europe and the multitude of channels is somewhat more complex in the EU, where several policy levels are often important for the same issue. Financial contribution and legal tactics, in turn, are central to US lobbying. By contrast, campaign financing is not possible in EU politics and the use of lawyers much less common for advocacy work in Brussels (see Bouwen and McCown, 2004).
However, the everyday practices of lobbying in both cases are comparable. During consultation and everyday contacts, US and EU lobbyists alike have to rely on providing expertise and information to defend their positions (Potters and Van Winden, 1990; Bennedsen and Feldmann, 2002). Yet, a more nuanced analysis indicates that even in the context of informational lobbying, lobbying styles are somewhat different in Washington DC and Brussels. While US groups and lobbyists oftentimes defend their immediate interest by trying to exert pressure on public officials, EU representatives often seem to be less determined and more soft-spoken in their approach.
Coen (1998, 1999) indicates that these two approaches correspond to the different role trust plays in the relationship between private interests and public officials. EU lobbying is much more rooted in long-term relationships and trust than is the case in the US. As Vogel (1996a, p. 11) points out for the case of business lobbyists, the relationship among firms trying to affect the government in the US is characterized by an ‘adversary culture’. This contrast is something that many practitioners underline when they are asked about differences in work of lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic. To cite an example, this British lobbyist tries to explain why lobbying plays a greater role in the US than they do in Brussels or London (McGrath, 2002):
In Washington, lobbying […] is very specialized […]. Therefore, if they are specialists it is much more natural that they should be putting the case. I think it might also simply have to do with the natural characteristics, for here people tend to be very reserved, polite, discreet, while Americans seem to be very brash and in your face.
These impressions highlight that there seems to be a difference in lobbying styles, despite all the similarities in lobbying tactics. Put differently, it is not what you do, it is how you do it. ‘No one expects the “full on” US style lobbying tactics to work in Europe; rather, we can expect an increasingly subtle style […]’, suggests Coen (1999, p. 41) in his analysis. To him, the European style is characterized by a ‘low public profile’ and being ‘sophisticated’, compared with the ‘aggressive lobbying of Washington firms’. Thomas and Hrebenar (2009) underline that ‘unlike the situation in the US where “defensive lobbying” is a widely used tactic, it is not in the nature of EU lobbying to stop something, to kill it’. These characteristics are especially visible to practitioners and policymakers, who repeatedly underline differences, like a MEP who deplores the ‘gangster style of American lobbyists’ or an EU lobbyist who explains that ‘in Brussels, you must learn to speak softly, softly’, (Gardner, 1991, p. 63). Somehow, all analysts seem to agree that EU lobbying is less confrontational and consensus-oriented than US lobbying.