Mon | Sep 26, 2016

Regulate local lobbying

Published:Friday | March 26, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The world watched the machinations of the US political system as President Obama and the Democratic Party tried to get the health-care reform legislation passed through Congress and Senate. Whatever else you may say about the American political system, it is pretty open and transparent.

And what the transparency allowed us to see was not pretty! The people to benefit most from a health-care reform are the poor and marginalised, and you would think that such a bill would pass with bi-partisan support; after all, which politician wants to be known as denying life-saving medical treatment to those who need it most and can least afford to pay?

But there are always winners and losers, and the losers here are the private-sector health-insurance companies who, without much government regulation or competition, have been able to charge whatever premiums they wish, and to refuse insurance to persons with "pre-existing conditions"; which means that they have been able to get away with offering health insurance to persons who are not sick, but who will pay a lot of money to insure against the eventuality that they do get sick.

If these companies are forced to offer health insurance to persons who already have diabetes, hypertension, cancer and heart problems, then they will have to pay out more to treat them, and therefore make less profits. The private-sector health-insurance companies were not in favour of President Obama's health-care reform legislation.

Capitalism

Nothing wrong with that! The private sector anywhere will always seek to spend as little money as possible to make as much money as possible, even if poor people suffer in the process. It's called capitalism.

And so, what they did was to lobby the US Congress and senate not to pass the health reform legislation, or to seek amendments which will take the teeth out of the reform and keep their profits high. They hired lobbyists who made approaches on Capitol Hill; they made political contributions; they advertised on television - they strongly put across their point of view.

Again, nothing wrong with that! But in the USA lobbyists have to be registered and licensed, and if someone is being paid to lobby on behalf of someone, they have to declare it; and there are rules about who can be a lobbyist, especially former politicians and public servants who have inside information.

And so, the transparency in the US system led to exposure of who was lobbying whom, and everyone who wanted to know could learn who was doing what. In the USA, there are laws intended to reduce the possibility of wealthy special interests capturing their democracy.

Fantastic claims

The claims of the special interests were fantastic: that Obama is a secret socialist; that health-care reform would mean more abortions; that there would be death panels deciding who would live and who would die; and stuff like that. Despite the well-funded media misinformation campaign, Obama has won and the new health-care legislation has passed into law.

But, I believe that it is really the US system that has won; for if it wasn't for the transparency guaranteed by law, the result would be quite different!

Jamaica has its paid lobbyists too! And serious money is often paid to politicians and political parties to gain influence! The big difference is that lobbying here is not regulated, and secret financial contributions may legally be made to politicians and political parties. As a result, influence is being bought by special interests, and because there is no transparency we don't know what is going on behind the scenes.

Nowhere is this more serious than in the sphere of environmental conservation. Under the present and previous government, persons with strong party connections appear at meetings, offering support for projects proposed by various local or foreign interests. Sometimes they provide services like obtaining waivers for various charges, or by renting crowds to turn out at public meetings to support the project and shout down opposition.

Their campaign message is familiar - environmentalists are antidevelopment, and want to take us back to the days of the Arawaks; and what we need is a "balance", which means that we have to allow some amount of environmental destruction in the name of progress.

Environmentalists have far too few victories because Jamaica's system allows special interests to lobby in secrecy for their environmentally destructive projects. Time for a change.

Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and a Roman Catholic deacon.