Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Oil, money and American politics

According to a report by The Centre for Public Integrity oil companies have spent more than $440 million over the past six years on politicians, political parties and lobbyists in order to protect its interests in Washington.
 
Some key findings of the report:
 
The industry has spent more than $381 million on lobbying activities since 1998, pushing hard on everything from a new national energy policy to obscure changes in the tax code.

The industry has given more than $67 million in campaign contributions in federal elections since the 1998 election cycle, about a fifth of the amount it has spent on lobbying.

Oil and gas companies overwhelmingly favored Republicans over Democrats in their campaign giving, the study found. Just over 73 percent of the industry's campaign contributions have gone to Republican candidates and organizations.

The industry exerts its influence in other, less obvious ways, including membership on the National Petroleum Council, a commission formed to advise the energy secretary. Koch Industries, the largest privately-held oil company in the United States, has financed a network of conservative nonprofit organizations designed to influence policy debate in this country.

U.S.-based oil and gas companies have nearly 900 subsidiaries located in tax haven countries, such as the Cayman Islands and Bermuda
 
I don't see anything particularly sinister about oil companies funding non-profits to sway public opinion, this is a fact of modern life. Non-profits are founded to "educate" the public on a wide range of controversial issues from abortion to GM foods, and there are usually organisations fighting for both sides of any given debate. What I do find worrying though is the extent to which business is able to influence political decision making with money in a way that is not necessarily transparent. This information should be more accessible. Money paid for lobbying purposes, and the funding behind a particular lobby group, should be reported on more thoroughly in the mainstream media, and people should be able to more easily track the lobbying process and see how decisions are influenced. Oil companies in particular are notorious for polluting the environment, and a political system lacking in transparency means that the government can get away with decisions that are not always for the public good. I think the California energy crisis a few years back bears testimony to that.

Lobbying is the practice of talking with members of Congress to persuade them to support a particular position or piece of legislation. A lobbyist is generally an individual whose full-time work is representing a particular interest or set of interests in the legislative process. These suggested lobbying guidlines from an American university show how open the process is to possible abuse from unethical players:

The pursuit of lobbying must take into account the common good, not merely a particular client’s interests narrowly considered.

The lobbyist-client relationship must be based on candor and mutual respect.

A policymaker is entitled to expect candid disclosure from the lobbyist, including accurate and reliable information about the identity of the client and the nature and implications of the issues.

In dealing with other shapers of public opinion, the lobbyist may not conceal or misrepresent the identity of the client or other pertinent facts

The lobbyist must avoid conflicts of interest

Certain tactics are inappropriate in pursuing a lobbying engagement

The lobbyist has an obligation to promote the integrity of the lobbying profession and public understanding of the lobbying process


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