Where the Shekel Stops / The Problem Isn't the Lobbyists, It's the Knesset Members

As long as lawmakers think they're being rated based on the number of frivolous bills they submit, they'll keep having lobbyists do their leg work.

The uproar over remarks by incautious lobbyists at Gilad - Government Relations & Lobbying, caught on tape by Channel 2 investigative journalists, refuses to die down. ("We're the hyphen between wealth and government," one executive boasted while lecturing lobbyists in training ). Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a veteran Knesset member, responded angrily to the revelations by television show Uvda ("fact" ), barring Gilad's lobbyists from the Knesset entirely.

There is no question that Gilad, whose employees boasted that they manipulate Knesset members like marionettes and write legislative proposals for them, will be severely punished. But what about the Knesset members who allow themselves to be manipulated?

Lobbyists - Fitoussi - Feb 2012
Olivier Fitoussi

Lobbyists have good reason for boasting of such success. Economic research shows that human behavior is driven by incentives, and one has to admit that the lobbyists know how to incentivize Israel's parliamentarians. The latter are motivated by publicity at any price, and the way to get that is to propose as many private-member bills as possible, to be prepared to do anything and to say any bit of drivel that will make headlines.

Lobbyists play a crucial role in this. First off, they have contacts not only in the Knesset but in the press, which is key to drumming up headlines. Second, the lobbyists save the Knesset members time and money, freeing them to dream up and table as many private-member bills as possible, many of which - as we learned from Gilad - were written by lobbyists in the first place.

The Knesset holds a world record for the number of private-member bills submitted. According to its own spokesman, in the 10th Knesset (convened in 1981 ), 415 private-member bills were submitted. That comes out to 11 a month.

In the last Knesset, the 17th, no less than 4,093 private-member bills were filed, 10 times the rate from 1981. That works out to 117 a month.

In the present Knesset, the 18th, 3,541 private-member bills had been submitted as of October: 107 a month.

Out of these 3,541 private-member bills, 172 have become law. That is less than 5% of the total. This means the absolute majority of these legislative proposals get tossed out, making both the proposal and the work behind it an utter waste of time.

However, since the sheer number of private-member bills is so huge, the small fraction that does get passed into law is highly significant. In the present Knesset, 172 private-member bills were passed, as were 203 legislative proposals tabled by the government.

In other words, these private-member bills constituted 46% of all the laws passed by this Knesset.

Here's another statistic. The government proposed 224 bills during the current Knesset - in other words, 91% of government proposals passed, compared with 4.8% of private-member bills.

That ratio, 4.8% to 91%, is no coincidence. It represents the chasmic difference in gravity between laws proposed by government, and the legislative fripperies brought up by the Knesset members.

In almost all cases, the government legislative proposals are submitted because a ministry has identified a real need. Also, all government legislative proposals undergo serious debate by cabinet, the Finance Ministry, the Justice Ministry and other relevant ministries. This process can take a year. Only once all the ministries are on board is the bill presented to the Knesset.

Due to the nature of things, by then the proposal has been fleshed out, consolidated and finished.

Not so private-member bills. The only thing between a Knesset member and a bill is his pen: the time it takes him to scribble down the idea.

Yes, some private-member bills are important, and are based on thorough investigation. But the vast majority are shallow whims with a single goal - to make the Knesset member seem like an active parliamentarian. They believe the competition over the hearts and minds of the press is based on the number of bills they put forward. And that is why they submit private-member bills by quantity, not quality.

The lobbyists who write these bills for them are merely their servants.

The damage this causes is twofold. First of all, the Knesset is creating a terrific amount of work for nothing. Legislators are wasting precious time on nonsensical bills, as is the government. Every such bill has to be reviewed by the relevant ministry, which has to explain why it is gratuitous.

Secondly, the Knesset members are being distracted from their real parliamentary duties, such as critiquing the government, studying government legislation in depth and participating in debates. These are the things that parliament members do in other countries.

En route, the interest of the Israeli voter is lost. Instead of a sharp, cutting-edge parliament supervising the government, the voter gets a parliament whose members are preoccupied with competing to produce rubbish.

As long as Knesset members continue to believe they are being measured by the number of bills they produce, this will go on and they will keep using lobbyists' services.

The problem therefore is not the lobbyists. The problem is the Knesset members. The problem is also the public, which judges its elected leaders based on completely irrelevant measures and motivates them to act in ways contrary to its own good.