Columns » Max Brantley

Cleaner government

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Events prompt me to dredge up a pet topic — stronger ethical rules in state government.

The ongoing Abramoff scandal in Washington is one encouragement. There, a lobbyist influenced legislation by doling out enormous perks, such as golf outings to Scotland, and fat campaign contributions.

Another: Asa Hutchinson’s unseemly dash to line up a high-dollar lobbying post and to lend his name as a former Bush administration official to opportunistic penny stock plays.

Another: Rep. Benny Petrus’ election as House speaker. Petrus, a regressive conservative, isn’t my political cup of tea. But the use of his apartment in the last session as a cocktail lounge by a lobbyist for Deltic Timber and Oaklawn Park is the relevant background.

Lobbyists serve an important function. The best of them are honest sources of reliable information. The problem is that too many influence votes with wining and dining. In theory, expenditures over $40 must be itemized. In practice, the rules are riddled with loopholes. You can rarely find itemized reporting on legislative entertainment. But if you doubt this practice occurs, drop in a fancy steakhouse any night the legislature is in session and see if you can find a legislator who’s not being fed by a lobbyist. This goodwill pays disproportionate returns. It’s human nature to return favors.

Massachusetts, Wisconsin and South Carolina have outlawed gifts from lobbyists to legislators. Lobbyists in those states can’t even buy a cup of coffee for a legislator. Somehow, these states still manage to pass laws; lobbyists still manage to be employed. But they do their work on a more businesslike basis. If they simply must meet over lunch, the legislator pays her own tab, as most of the rest of us do.

One obstacle to such reform here is that many legislators hope to be lobbyists one day. Why outlaw their future gravy train? A couple dozen former lawmakers haunt the Capitol hallways, many of them having worked on deals for future employment while voting on legislation affecting future employers. At a minimum, public officials should be barred from lobbying for a year after leaving office. A full term of office would be better.

No gifts and no revolving door to the lobby would be a start on cleaner government. Another fat target is the incumbent-protection rule on campaign financing, which allows elected state officials to keep campaign surpluses equal to a year’s salary. Such money was used in this year’s speaker’s race, on both sides, to pass around to other legislators. If may not be bribery, but it has an uncomfortable resemblance. There’s no rationale for providing incumbents with surplus cash, particularly when it can be raised after an election has been won and the cash comes, generally, from lobbyists.

For years, I’ve urged Democrats and Republicans alike to adopt ethics reform as a central campaign theme. It would dovetail nicely with voters’ generally low opinion of elected officials, which is only likely to get worse during the Abramoff scandal. But there’s bipartisan uninterest.

A candidate for statewide office surprised me the other day by saying, not for attribution, that he was considering a proposal on ethics reform. But he said he just couldn’t see including an end to lobbyist entertainment of legislators. It is too much a part of the culture, he said. This, of course, is the problem.




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