Lobbying and Corruption in Democratic Brazil
On October 28, the authors of "Lobbying Uncovered: Corruption, Democracy, and Public Policy in Brazil" held a discussion of Brazil’s efforts to build a modern democracy, and the role of lobbying in the public policy process.
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Lobbying is legal in Brazil, yet—as in much of the world—the industry remains associated with corruption and backroom deals. There is a growing expectation in Brazil that elected officials and occupants of key positions in government will be honest in their dealings and accountable to society’s demands and interests, in contrast with a not-so-distant past. Nonetheless, real challenges remain in Brazil’s fight to establish a more transparent and accountable democratic system.
The fourteen chapters of a new English-language edition of Lobbying Uncovered: Democracy, Public Policy and Corruption in Contemporary Brazil offer a window into this effort to establish a new culture of transparency and provide policymakers and voters alike a framework for discussing the role and regulation of lobbying in a contemporary, democratic Brazil.
On Wednesday, October 28, the book’s organizers and the Wilson Center, Insper, BRAVA Foundation, and JOTA convened a conversation on the intersection of money, power, and influence in Brazil.
“Definitely we are talking about interests, and there are three interest groups involved in these relationships: when representatives of private companies meet government officials, the subjects they discuss [are] of great interest to society. People are used to saying that ‘those who are not seated at the table are usually on the menu.’”
“When we think about lobbying […] we can think about, let's say, politics as usual. So you give money and you are receiving something on the other end. But we also have something that I like to call politics as unusual, when you try to lobby on other aspects. Some hypotheses are that lobbies can pressure with knowledge, so ‘We are in the private sector, we know what's happening and here is information.’[...] Today, we have an extra situation which is budgetary problems, budgetary constraints in Brazil. The fight for the pie is really, really strong at this point, so we saw lobbying groups going to Brasilia and having campaigns and headquarters in Brasilia during the pension reform [debate]. Next year, we have ahead of us another dispute which is tax reform, where interests are going to be much more different and if we lead this [with], let's say, politics as usual—where you have a private interest and you use your power or your financial power to steer tax breaks in your direction—we might have very troublesome problems.”
“There is some evidence that [inter-party competition] drives the cost of campaigns up, because you are competing with your peers there. And since the [electoral] district is so large in Brazil, different from the U.S., many times you are competing in the whole state, and so campaign costs go way up.”
“There is one important differentiation: Sometimes you lobby alone, sometimes you lobby as a coalition. A lot lobbyists are not solitary wolves, sometimes you go in packs. And so I ran a field experiment, a measure with a treatment control group in Congress in Brazil during the pension reform and I found an effect of 3.5 percentage points when you show that you are a coalition, when you show that you are working together and you have political power and economic power, in a sense that you are showing that this is a coalition.”
“We had a couple of stories in the press in the past few years where the journalists got the bill that is sponsored by deputies, famously [former Speaker of the House] Eduardo Cunha for instance, and look at the information in the Word documents and discover who actually wrote that document and [if it] was a company […] you can see who made the changes, and so there are a couple of very good articles done [about] that. Another thing is an increasingly strong community of data scientists. And the Congress is making an effort to create an open source [platform], and so we use that in our tools and that's not without trouble. Last week the Senate changed one of [the] sources of information and changed it completely—the way they release [data]—and so you have to change all your codes to get the information. And so every week we have some trouble like that, but the information that is available today is very good to track every step [of the legislative process] and we can transform some tools for people to use.”
“I am on the more on the hopeful [end]—you could accuse me of being pollyannaish about this […]. I think we are going to see in the United States, in the coming years, enormous creativity, enormous energy to make the system more open, more democratic, more transparent, etc. Now, I see the same thing—although we are all kind of depressed in Brazil—I see the same thing happening in state and local governments in Brazil. We keep focusing on Brasilia […]but there are lots of new voices, officials in states, in cities in Brazil.”
“There is one way of tracking and monitoring and surviving. It's called journalists. Keep good journalists informed about what's going on because that's the surest way to keep the system honest.”
“We also need to think about the broader framework of accountability which includes not just transparency but also oversight and the possibility of sanction, of punishing wrongdoing. This is probably more relevant to the study of corruption than to the study of interest groups because what interest groups do is not necessarily corrupt [...]. The important thing here is to keep our eye on transparency. But the fact of the matter is that even transparency—which I would argue is the place where Brazil is most advanced of those three sectors: transparency, oversight, and sanction—even transparency has been rolled back [since 2016].”
“Another experiment that will be interesting to watch is the effect of the end of so-called coligações at the state level and what that does. So basically coligações are inter-party alliances at the local level and one question is with them being split up, what happens to the inter-party electoral competition? This is one of the sources of a lot of the lack of transparency in campaign finance generally […] you have an incentive, you’re not running only against the other party, you’re also running against your peers in the party. I think this helps to explain another facet of Brazilian politics which is different from the American, which is the existence of these large caucuses, the so-called bancadas.”
“In the United States as in Brazil, lobbying is a dirty word [...]. There is this perception among the public that lobbying is somehow corrupt because it involves money, because it involves influence. And yet lobbying has this really important function within a democratic system. It is the way that people and other entities press the government for certain policies and that can be done by businesses but it can also be done by grassroots organizations or even individuals. When we talk about lobbying, we’re not just talking about big corporations and backroom deals. It’s really important to view lobbying within this wider framework of the discussions between society, business, and the government on what public policies should be.”
“When we’re talking about lobbying in the United States—because I think this is relevant to Brazil as well—[one thing] is that lobbying in some ways benefits from more byzantine government structures. The harder it is to engage directly with the government, the more space there is for lobbyists to come in and to help companies and to help other entities interact with the government because they are the experts—they know how this is done, they have the connections. If you’re thinking about how to make lobbying more transparent and more fair, I do think it’s important to also look at the way a government functions: how efficient is it? How hard is it to navigate? Because that also has an impact on the lobbying industry.”
“It’s through transparency—not transparency alone—that we can continue the long process of building a more honest democracy and a more just economy. In other words, this is going to take a lot of effort. We think transparency is at the core. Why? Because when people are registered to be lobbyists, at least we know who the players are. When people have to disclose their financial contributions, at least we know who is speaking with their wallets. And when we have a free press, we include that scrutiny. I don’t think any of these things [is] on its own going to solve it, but we think that the active ingredient in all of this is transparency.”
“I think Congress has a long, long way [to go] in Brazil to be more transparent. We’re very good at finding out how much money a congressman is spending, but it’s much harder, I would say, to understand where a congressman stands on an issue … I think we could do better at that, and it’s really just opening up the Brazilian Congress more than it is—not just online, but in terms of access and public debate.”
Senior Vice President of International Relations & Head of Latin America, UnitedHealth Group
Associate Professor, School of International Service, American University, and former Brazil Institute Fellow
Senior Director, Albright Stonebridge Group
The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors. Read more
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