Friday, February 26, 2010

Time to Reform Ethics Reform

There’s a saying in politics that the more votes a measure gets is inversely proportional to what it accomplishes. I won’t say that’s true with respect to the Senate’s Ethics Reform bill that passed 50-0, but if I hear one more person say this bill “closes the revolving door” from legislator to lobbyist, I’m going to lose my lunch. All it does is smudge the glass of the revolving door, making it an itsy bit harder to push open.

(Also, Speaker Bauer is right that the most critical provision is prohibiting state contractors from making campaign donations, and that's not in the bill at present).

But the portion of that bill prohibiting legislators from turning into lobbyists until they’ve been out of office for one year is sham reform for a rampant problem. According to a study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, 1300 former legislators became lobbyists in America’s statehouses from 2002-2005.

Former Democratic State Senator and current lobbyist Louis Mahern (also my favorite orator from when I worked for the Senate Dems) was quoted in the study:

“I can stay in the state Senate, which I’ve been in for 16 years, attend meetings at night and weekends, and stand for re-election at $25,000 per year with per diem, or I can go out in the hall, and not have to go to meetings at night, only follow legislation my clients care about, and make $200,000 per year. You can only resist for so long. I have to start thinking of my financial future or my children’s education.”

In other words, some legislators want the payday.

But what do the employers want?

The companies, trade groups, and law firms say legislators have “expertise,” but anybody with a copy of Roberts' plus the House and Senate Rules can learn procedure, and any lawyer can master the law. What companies really want is insider information and rapport with other legislators. The most valuable tool in any negotiation is knowing what motivates. Accordingly, who better to achieve your legislative ends than somebody who’s repeatedly been inside a caucus room populated only by legislators disclosing the inner workings of their minds?

Seriously (and be honest with yourself about this), who is more valuable as a lobbyist: a guy who was in the legislature last year or a guy who hasn’t been there for twelve years in a legislature with 12-year term limits?

And ask yourself this question. Why just one year? Why not two? Or four? Is it any coincidence that a House member with a one-year prohibition can still potentially work with every single person with whom he started his last term?

Also, lest somebody forget, we have a citizen legislature, which means almost everybody in the IGA can step away for a year, do their day job, and then get the big payday.

Why should you care? Because not only are the interest groups outfoxing regular citizens by buying information you can't afford, you'll get people seeking public office for the wrong reason.

I had to vote once in a slating contest between two state representatives, and I went to the one I was leaning toward and said, “Give me your word right now that you will never become a lobbyist, and I’ll give you my vote.” To his credit, he was truthful as he replied, “I can’t say that. You never know what’s going to happen.” I cast my vote for the other candidate. The fact he wouldn’t disavow the notion let me know that, like an awful lot of others, he had already plotted a tentative career trajectory, and it included a visit to lobby land. Maybe if he knew he'd have to wait four years before he could cash in, he wouldn't have been trying to get slated in the first place.


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