October 31, 2012
by Rana Tahir '13
The United States government is always "up for auction" to foreign governments, says policy analyst and political researcher Ben Freeman. The only question, he adds, is: Who's buying?
Kresge Recital Hall was packed October 18 with students and faculty hoping to get an inside look at foreign lobbying in Washington, D.C. Earlier in the day, Freeman spoke with members of the Knox College Model United Nations Club. (Photo above: Ben Freeman talks with members of the Knox Model United Nations Club. Photo below right: Freeman presents a lecture in Kresge Hall.)
Freeman, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight and author of The Foreign Policy Auction, finds that there is a long history of foreign influence in the Americas, starting in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
"It's big business," he said of the increased amount of foreign money in the 2012 election cycle. Freeman also lobbies part-time for some nonprofit organizations.
While foreign countries are not legally allowed to donate to U.S. elections, Freeman said those countries have found loopholes in the law.
Freeman said everyone lobbies in one way or another.
"Anybody every write a letter to your congressman? Or donated to a campaign? Contacted a representative in any fashion? You lobbied; to a certain extent, you lobbied."
"There is plenty of lobbying that can be done for good. So it's certainly a misnomer to say all lobbying is bad," Freeman added, citing the Dalai Lama as a popular figure with a vested interest in U.S. policy.
The problem, according to Freeman, is oversight. Fewer than 10 people monitor foreign lobbying for the U.S. government, he said.
While lobbyists must report what their purpose is, who they are lobbying, when they are meeting, what they say in meetings, and how much they donate, all of this is only available in a printed hard copy in Washington D.C., according to Freeman.
The Project on Government Oversight, where Freeman works, is trying to remedy that by placing the information online for easy access.
Freeman said the system of government plays a part in keeping the "auction" open.
"Republics are just absolutely ripe for it, more so than dictatorships," he said.
On a screen behind him, Freeman projected a quote from political scientist Samuel P. Huntington: "American politics attracts foreign money because the decisions of its government have an impact on people and interests in every other country."
"The question is not: Is your government for sale? Yes! It's an emphatic yes," said Freeman. "The question is: How much?"
His lecture was sponsored by the "Elections 2012!" class and was part of Knox College's many political opportunities, including student debates, lectures, and the Elections 2012! class.