Lobbyists threaten to sue Bundestag over new rules
March 4, 2016
The German parliament. the Bundestag, has revamped its house rules for allowing lobbyists into the building. But both industry lobbyists and anti-lobbying activists are unhappy with the compromise.
They seemed like a major victory for transparency in the German parliament, long considered one of the most opaque houses in the democratic world. In fact the new lobbyist rules that came into effect on March 1 have bred a compromise that satisfies neither the business lobbyists nor the anti-lobbying activists.
The business lobbyists have the biggest immediate grievance, and are threatening to sue the parliament over an unfairness which they think breaches the German constitution - since only professional lobby associations will have access to the much-coveted long-term passes.
As of March 1, the Bundestag administration - led by the parliament's President Norbert Lammert - took over control of the long-term passes issued to representatives of various interests. Up until now, the political parties themselves also had the power to issue such passes, and until last year's lawsuit by the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper, did not have to disclose their lobbyist lists.
The Bundestag has now not only released those lists - overcoming resistance from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union - but has revamped the entire system in an effort to make clearer who has access to the parliament.
Now individual companies no longer have blanket access to the offices, but have to pick up day passes for individual meetings - or else meet representatives outside the parliament.
New system, less transparency?
"It's a good first step," said Gregor Hackmack, of the anti-lobbying group Parliament Watch. "It makes it a bit more difficult for lobbyists, but it's not what we need in Germany." For Hackmack and his watchdog group, anything short of a publicly available lobby register - such as the one published by the US Congress, for example - is just another compromise that delays real regulation.
But the lobbyists have completely different concerns. In an opinion piece for the "Tagesspiegel," Dominik Meier of the German Association of Political Consultants (Degepol), said that the new ruling was "constitutionally dubious and in several ways misguided."
For Sergius Seebohm, political consultant and deputy chairman of Degepol, the whole discussion is misguided. "When I read the debate on Internet forums, you get the impression that if you've got this pass you can practically march through to all the political decision-makers, into some backroom and then decide some law or other," he told DW. "That's complete nonsense."
"The real question that people are concerned with is not the house rules in the Bundestag - the real question is how interest representation works, and according to what rules," Seebohm added. "That's why we're calling for a lobby register and a lobbying commissioner in the Bundestag. But when you then find a regulation that is so obviously unfair, then of course you can't be happy with that, even if it is a side issue."
Asked by DW to respond to this - and the threat to take the matter to the Constitutional Court, which Seebohm did not rule out - Bundestag authorities only sent an emailed comment setting out the new rules. "Companies will no longer receive house passes," the email read. "Their representatives can still get access with a day pass if they can show they have a legitimate interest as part of a single visitor regulation."
The lobbyists' argument that the passes are not important didn't wash with Hackmack of Parliament Watch. "If it's such a side issue, then why are they complaining when they get rid of them?" he wondered.
In general, Hackmack believes, people like Meier are playing a double game - calling for greater transparency, but working to prevent it. "After all, these aren't people who act out of conviction, but for whoever pays them the most," he said. "The problem with most lobbyists is that they depend on confidentiality and backroom politics, because they represent interests that don't command a majority."
Lobbying in Germany, corruption elsewhere
Meanwhile, Michael Wedell, representative for the German retail giant Metro Group, warned that the new rules would create a "gray market" in which MPs would seek out ways to smuggle lobbyists into the parliament by naming them as freelance contractors. Given that many companies produce their own magazines, they could even be named as press. Hackmack doesn't think that is very realistic. "I can't imagine that happening," he told DW. "That would be an abuse of the idea of a press pass."
"The new regulation does not create any more transparency," Metro Group's head of public policy in Germany, Raphael Neuner, told DW in an email. "On the contrary, it opens the door and the gate to unfair treatment. The question of a modern, transparent form of interest representation can't be regulated by house rules. What we need is a lobby register, a debate about additional activities, the legislative footprint or an interest commissioner. That would help - not a fake debate about access."
Even though activists don't trust such statements, both lobbyists and activists agree that real regulation is still a long way off. "The fact is that what we in Berlin describe as lobbying would be called institutional corruption in other countries," said Hackmack. "Lobbyists can pay for an MP's dinner, they can earn income on the side, they can be made into political advisers, they can hire sitting MPs as lawyers - they can offer unlimited donations, whether they're companies or individuals. We have zero regulation."