For a few days at the end of September, there was a media outcry in Poland when it came to light that the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C. is hiring a lobbying firm. The controversy revolved around the fact that the lobbying firm, BGR Holding, was founded by Republicans and, at least until recently, it had only Republicans working for it. That raised some eyebrows since the Democrats have had a majority in both houses of Congress since 2006, and the administration has been under Democratic control since Barack Obama was sworn into office in November 2008. What also got tongues wagging was the price tag for BGR’s services: $520,000 since the beginning of the contract in May 2008. So is Poland wasting money in Washington?
Interestingly enough, the person that revealed the situation is a political scientist from George Washington University, Dr. Steven Billet. An expert on lobbying, and himself a former lobbyist, Billet came across the Polish government’s contract with BGR in the Foreign Agent Registry Act (FARA) database while researching foreign governments and their lobbying activities in Washington. After Obama scrapped the missile shield plan, Billet decided to write to the Polish Press Agency pointing out Poland’s contract with BGR. He claimed that Polish citizens should look to their own government for answers regarding the failed missile shield instead of being upset at the Obama administration.
According to Billet, although a number of governments hire lobbying firms in Washington, Poland’s contract with BGR is rather large, and the few other European Union countries that hire lobbying firms in the U.S. do not pay nearly as much.
Billet also pointed out that hiring a firm like BGR was perhaps not a bad choice under the Bush administration, since BGR lobbyists still had good access to high-ranking officials. However, all of the BGR employees lobbying for Poland at the time were Republicans. According to Billet, this is wasteful and Poland should hire a lobbying firm with Democratic credentials.
Finally, he questioned the competence and knowledge of Polish diplomacy. According to Billet, Polish diplomats are not capable of effectively working on Poland’s behalf, thus the need to hire an expensive lobbying firm to do it for them.
The Polish diplomatic establishment defended itself against Billet’s criticisms. Robert Kupiecki, the Polish Ambassador in Washington, said in a statement for TVP and Polsat News that he appraises the Embassy’s work with BGR as positive. The Embassy’s spokesman, Paweł Maciąg, said that the Embassy would not comment on the private opinions of political scientists. Piotr Paszkowski, the spokesman for Radosław Sikorski’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stressed that lobbyists’ political opinions don’t interfere with their work. Also, a source in the Polish diplomatic corps told the Dziennik newspaper, “You don’t change lobbying firms after every election.” Other sources pointed out that BGR had, in fact, hired Democratic lobbyists.
Do those arguments stand up to the criticism? A closer look at the issue gives mixed results. It is understandable that the Embassy was satisfied with BGR’s work in 2008, when Bush was still in office, and the firm was lobbying heavily on Poland’s behalf. Those efforts resulted in the Bush administration’s decision to place missile interceptors on Polish territory. However, when Obama took over, the Bush administration’s missile shield plan was scrapped, and it seems that at that point BGR was not getting much done anymore. As Billet told the Krakow Post, “The outcome on the missile deployment issue would suggest that they really weren’t very effective”. Poland is still to play a significant role in the Obama administration’s newly proposed missile shield plan, so perhaps BGR’s work from 2008 somewhat paid off.
The diplomatic establishment did not comment on the expense of the contract with BGR, but Billet’s claims are supported by data in the FARA and the Center for Responsive Politics databases. For example, Great Britain and the Netherlands have so far paid their Washington lobbying firm, O’Brien & Associates, $90,000 in 2009, compared to Poland’s $300,000. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that a number of non-EU countries, such as India (also represented by BGR), Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, spend even more than Poland on lobbying in Washington.
Whether or not lobbyists’ political opinions interfere with their work seems debatable. Obviously, a lobbyist, like a lawyer, can work on a client’s behalf regardless of whether they agree with the client’s politics or not. But, it is the lobbyist’s access to high-ranking officials and politicians that is the main concern. “The assumption is that when you sign a contract with a lobbying firm in Washington you’re buying their access, their network of contacts that they’ve developed over the years,” says Billet. He explains further that some governments hire lobbying firms in Washington because they offer more continuity in a particular issue area, which can be advantageous because diplomats come and go every few years, and often do not have enough time to develop the types of relationships and networks that lobbying firms offer.
It seems to make sense that a lobbyist’s foreign policy credentials are more important than his or her political affiliation. But, the problem is that political affiliation can influence lobbyists’ access to high-ranking officials. This was demonstrated by a Polish Radio correspondent in Washington, Marek Wałkuski, who looked deeper into reports submitted by BGR to the U.S. Department of Justice regarding its lobbying activities on Poland’s behalf. The reports showed that after Obama took over the Oval Office, BGR’s contacts with the administration practically broke off. Between May and December 2008, when Bush was still in office, BGR had 71 contacts with representatives of the Department of State, the Pentagon, and the White House. BGR lobbyists met with, among others, the chief missile shield negotiator John Rood, Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy Dan Fata.
However, since Obama took over, in the first half of 2009 BGR did not contact the White House a single time, while contacting the Pentagon only once and the Department of State seven times, although most of those seven contacts were not of a substantial nature. While in the second half of 2008 BGR had 101 personal, email and phone contacts on Poland’s behalf, in the first half of 2009 it only had 46 contacts. Furthermore, BGR’s lobbyists contacted solely Republican politicians, including Congressman Mark Kirk and Senators John Kyl, George Voinovich, and John McCain, throughout the period researched by Wałkuski.
Sources in the Polish diplomatic corps also argued that BGR has hired Democrats. Indeed, the firm did acquire a lobbying firm managed by Democrats, Westin Rinehart Group, in November 2008. However, according to the Department of Justice’s reports, Stephen Rademaker, Ed Rogers, and Walker Roberts, the three main lobbyists representing Poland, are Republicans. The latest report also lists a fourth lobbyist, Jonathan Mantz, as working for Poland. Before joining BGR, Mantz was National Finance Director of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Perhaps listing a Democrat as a lobbyist for Poland is a reaction to the criticism the Embassy received. However, it should be pointed out that Mantz does not have experience in the foreign policy or defence spheres.
The Polish diplomatic establishment did not comment on Billet’s allegations of incompetence. The service that BGR provides Poland with, as stated in reports submitted to the Department of Justice, is “monitoring and advising on U.S. policy-making with regard to Poland.” It can be assumed that monitoring means simply following news and developments in the U.S. government that are relevant to Poland. Considering the easy access to various media, and the transparency of the U.S. government, this should not be too difficult. Perhaps the advising aspect requires the help of a lobbying firm.
However, it should also be pointed out that the Czech Republic, which was to host the radar for the Bush administration’s missile shield plan, was somehow able to negotiate with the U.S. through normal diplomatic means, without the services of a lobbying firm. Now, the Czech Republic, like Poland, will also participate in the newly proposed missile shield plan, and that was also arranged through normal diplomatic channels.
The Polish Embassy in Washington continues to hire BGR. The latest report submitted to the Department of Justice shows a $100,000 payment for the third quarter of 2009. Neither the Embassy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nor BGR could be reached for comments on the issue.