I found this very pertinent piece from former US president, Jimmy Carter, in the collection of pieces by Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt (London: Picador 1980). It’s in Carter’s 1974 Law Day address to the students at Georgia University.
We had an ethics bill in the state legislature this year. Half of it passed – to require an accounting for contributions during a campaign – but the part that applied to people after the campaign failed. We couldn’t get through a requirement for revelation of payments or gifts to office-holders after they are in office.
The largest force against that ethics bill was the lawyers.
Some of you here tried to help get a consumer protection package passed without success.
The regulatory agencies in Washington are made up, not of people to regulate industries, but of representatives of the industries that are regulated. Is that fair and right and equitable? I don’t think so.
I’m only going to serve four years as governor, as you know. I think that’s enough. I enjoy it, but I think I’ve done all I can in the Governor’s office. I see the lobbyists in the State Capitol filling the halls on occasions. Good people, competent people, the most pleasant, personable, extroverted citizens of Georgia. those are the characteristics that are required for a lobbyist. They represent good folks. But I tell you that when a lobbyist goes to represent the Peanut Warehouseman’s Association of the Southeast, which I belong to, which I helped organise, they go there to represent the peanut warehouseman. They don’t go there to represent the customers of the peanut warehouseman.
When the State Chamber of Commerce lobbyists go there, they go there to represent the businessmen of Georgia. They don’t go there to represent the customers of the businessmen of Georgia.
When your own organisation is interested in some legislation there in the Capitol, they’re interested in the welfare or prerogatives or authority of the lawyers. They are not there to represent in any sort of exclusive way the client of the lawyers.
The American Medical Association and its Georgia equivalent – they represent the doctors, who are fine people. But they certainly don’t represent the patients of a doctor.
Obviously, there are some differences between the situation Carter and Thompson describe. I think we do have legislation in this country, which requires gifts to ministers and civil servants to be declared. And some of the most determined opposition to the Tories’ campaign to privatise the NHS has come from the ranks of the British Medical Association.
But the substance of what Carter said is as true today as it was when Carter said it. If you read Private Eye in the 1990s, you saw fortnight after fortnight yet more news of someone from one of the industries getting a job in the body that was set up to regulate it. And it’s gone on. Private Eye are still running stories about banks and the leading accountancy firms, who were most notorious at dodging tax sending senior staff to act as interns or advisors to the Inland Revenue and the financial regulatory authorities. Or else a former managing director or chairman of the board from one these industries him- or herself gets a place there.
As for the lobbyists, Mike over at Vox Political the other year ran many pieces describing the Tory act that was supposed to limit their influence. Except it didn’t. What it did instead was try to cut out the influence of smaller, grass roots activist groups campaigning against some injustice or piece of misgovernment, and try to limit the ability of trade unions to campaign against particular issues. The lobbyists themselves were left largely untouched. As you can expect from a government, whose annual conferences are paid for by the big corporations, and which is headed by a PR spin merchant: David Cameron himself.
Carter was right to attack the corruption of the regulatory bodies by the very corporations they were meant to be overseeing, and his remarks on the pernicious influence of the lobbyists is still very timely. It’s time to clean up politics, and get rid of them and the Tories.