26.03.2021 / Article

What the new lobby register means for political lobbying

Last night the German parliament set the course for more transparent lobbying and advocacy with the so-called Lobby Register Act (LobbyRG). This followed months of negotiations between the coalition partners – originally triggered by the public outrage over the affair involving CDU politician Philipp Amthor in the summer of 2020, which contributed significantly to the CDU/CSU agreeing to the plans long demanded by other parties and groups. The “mask scandal” helped bring the deadlocked negotiations to a successful conclusion.

What is standard practice in Brussels at the EU level now also applies to lobbying and advocacy in Germany. The aim is to create more transparency and thus also acceptance for the professional representation of interests, as well as to take the often negatively connoted term “lobbying” out of the dirty corner. This is in the fundamental interest of the Public Affairs sector, which is shown, among other things, by the fact that the German Society for Political Consultancy (degepol) has been campaigning for such a register for almost two decades. Despite the progress, the current text of the law has been met with criticism on some central points.

What will change in concrete terms?

  • In the future, political lobbyists will have to sign up to a public register if they work regularly, permanently or on a commercial basis for third parties. This definition includes companies, industry associations, non-governmental organisations and consulting agencies. The obligation to enter the register also applies if more than 50 different lobbying contacts have been established within the past three months.
  • The legal obligation to register will apply to lobbying and advocacy with regard to members of parliament, parliamentary groups and the federal government. In the case of the latter, state secretaries and sub-department heads of ministries are also covered.
  • However, there are exceptions: for example, employers’ and employees’ associations, political parties, political foundations, churches and religious communities do not have to register.
  • Agencies and other service providers involved in lobbying must disclose which clients they work for. In addition, the number of employees directly engaged in lobbying must be disclosed (in increments of ten employees). Information on the annual financial expenditure related to lobbying and advocacy is to be recorded in increments of 10,000 euros; however, the objective or aims of the assignment are not registered.
  • The register is maintained digitally at the Bundestag. Those who do not comply with the rules face a fine of up to 50,000 euros.
  • In addition, the law stipulates that parliament and the federal government shall prescribe a uniform and binding code of conduct for lobbying and advocacy. An earlier draft of the law stated that this code was to be developed by the various sectors themselves as a voluntary commitment. On the home stretch of the negotiations, the coalition partners agreed on this uniform solution on the insistence of the SPD. This is to be developed with “representatives of civil society”.

Criticism from industry organisations, NGOs and the opposition

The uniform code has been heavily criticised by industry associations such as degepol. This is because they see it as an intervention in the otherwise customary and proven practice of voluntary commitment. It is feared that the end result will be a code that does not reflect the reality of pluralistic lobbying and advocacy.

For organisations such as Transparency International, Lobby Control and the opposition in German parliament, the law does not go far enough. They are demanding the introduction of a so-called “executive footprint”, which should make clear whose concerns are affected by a bill and who has been involved in the legislative process. Many believe it is simply not enough to disclose just the lobbyists’ side of the story, but is equally important to show the extent to which interests that have been brought in have actually been taken into account. The Greens in parliament would also like to see greater transparency of contacts, and demand that individual meetings of civil servants, MPs and ministers be made public.

Mandate lobbying remains excluded

One central aspect, which is also the focus of the current mask scandal, is still excluded from the law: so-called mandate lobbying, relating to elected representatives who also work as lobbyists for a fee. Therefore, some of the biggest media topics of the last few weeks would not even have been covered by the new rules of the lobby register, since some elected representatives were the lobbyists themselves.

Exercising a public mandate while at the same time lobbying for remuneration damages the reputation of a pluralistic democracy. In the public perception it puts mandate holders in a grey zone full of conflicts of interest and suspected corruption. Degepol has been calling for a ban on mandate lobbying since 2004 and has included this in its code of conduct. This demand has recently been given a boost by the CSU’s 10-point paper, which has since been endorsed by the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. According to party leader Markus Söder, this plan is intended to ensure “full transparency”. A key feature is a declaration of integrity that every MP should submit – if this is not completed, MPs face a range of consequences up to and including expulsion from the party. Transparency regulations in the MPs’ Act (Abgeordnetengesetz) are also to be significantly tightened.

An overdue but bumpy start

The lobby register is more than overdue. Unfortunately, it took fresh scandals to eventually force it through politically. Even if the law still has fundamental errors, such as the renunciation of the otherwise proven voluntary commitments, the long list of exceptions and the exclusion of mandate lobbying, the step towards legal regulation is to be welcomed. This is due to the fact that it sets clear rules for lobbying and improves transparency. In the long run, this can create greater acceptance for legitimate lobbying in a pluralistic democracy.


picture credits:
©Ricardo Gomez Angel

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