Panel tackles unregulated, unofficial lobbyists

Former MKs, party activists work as unregulated political advocates, panel claims.

MK Einat Wilf on panel on lobbying 370 (photo credit: LAHAV HARKOV)
MK Einat Wilf on panel on lobbying 370
(photo credit: LAHAV HARKOV)
Lobbyists are only a small part of the pressures MKs face from interest groups, panelists at a conference hosted by the NGO Progressive Democracy said on Sunday.
Knesset Education, Culture and Sport Committee chairwoman Einat Wilf (Independence), lobbyist Tzach Borovich – banned from the Knesset for two years following a televised exposé on lobbying, Progressive Democracy CEO Shabi Gatenio and The- Marker reporter Tzvika Zerahia, who has extensively covered the issue of lobbyists, participated in the discussion at the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation in Tel Aviv.
The panelists’ stances on lobbying differed, from Borovich who defended his trade, to Gatenio who advocated for all paid lobbyists to be banned, yet all agreed that lobbyists represent a fraction of the pressures MKs face from special interest groups, especially large corporations.
“Tycoons never rest; they just learned to work underground,” Zerahia said.
“Official lobbyists are listed on the Knesset website, but there are unofficial ones.
Party activists pressure MKs to work for this tycoon or the other, and the MK needs that activist for the next primary.”
Wilf said that ministers and their representatives meet with committee chairmen to promote their own interests and pressure them not to change government bills.
Borovich explained that paid lobbyists – working for corporations or NGOs – are easily identifiable by their orange name tags, which they are required to wear in the Knesset, but a former MK who represents a corporation or other special interest can always enter the building.
“It’s easy to get into the Knesset. A party activist can come in because an MK arranged it, and no one knows who he is representing and why he came,” the lobbyist said.
Borovich was filmed discussing his successes as a corporate lobbyist by a hidden camera for the investigative TV show Uvda in February, citing a case in which he convinced MKs to pass a law requiring drivers to have reflective vests in their cars. Borovich represented 3M, which manufactures the vests. He was banned from the Knesset for two years soon after, and regulations for lobbyists were made stricter.
For example, lobbyists are not allowed in the MK cafeteria, the Knesset Research and Information Center or in the Knesset Speaker’s Office. In addition, MKs must report any documents lobbyists give them.
Management consultant and social activist Sarah Bechor, who moderated the discussion, called for further transparency, but Wilf said she was unsure that would help the situation.
Gatenio pointed out that Government Services Minister Michael Eitan publicizes his schedule, and called on other MKs to follow suit. He also said MKs should be required to publicize the emails and text messages they exchange with lobbyists.
“The assumption that we’ll pass one bill and this will stop is wrong,” the Independence MK said.
“We always need to solve new problems. When there is a lot of transparency, there is a greater effort to hide. Wikileaks has made governments more secretive.”
Zerahia pointed to efforts in the Knesset and by NGOs to regulate lobbying, which he said are a result of last summer’s social protests.
Since then, “tycoons who used to enter the Knesset with lobbyists are now embarrassed, and the lobbyists represent them.”
“Tzach Borovich was banned from the Knesset for two years, lobbyists don’t enter the cafeteria or committee meetings – but the party continues. They still have cellphones,” Zerahia stated.
According to Wilf, there are two reasons for corporate lobbyists’ disproportionate representation: Motivation and access.
If a bill is proposed that will save the average citizen NIS 1,000 a year, it could lead a business owner to lose millions, Wilf explained. As such, the person who will lose millions is more motivated to hire lobbyists and work to sway the law in his favor.
“The losers know who they are and what they’ll lose. The winners are supposed to be the public – but they don’t even know if and when they win,” she said.
“The person who may save NIS 1,000 over time is not motivated to pressure MKs.”
The second problem, Wilf said, is access to MKs. The lobbyists are paid to be in the Knesset, and start conversations with MKs who are walking from one meeting to another.
“Some lobbyists knock on my door so often, that my assistants call them Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Wilf joked, explaining that the result is that MKs hear the lobbyists’ case, whether they agree with it or not.
The public, the Education Committee chairwoman said, does not have equal access to make an opposite claim. A very small percentage of people write letters to MKs, and the public does not realize that many legislators are happy to meet with them.
Borovich also pointed to the lack of public knowledge on the issue of lobbyists as a major problem.
“After Uvda I learned about the difference between transparency and disclosure,” Borovich explained. “I worked under regulation, according to laws and rules. I put my interests out on the table whenever I worked with someone – but there still is no public transparency.”
The former lobbyist explained that he gives lectures in various forums, including to political science students, and is amazed to see the public’s ignorance on interests are promoted to the government and Knesset.
“The public is not aware enough of this phenomenon,” Borovich said. “We need to make it more accessible.”