Often the whipping boys of politicians and pundits, lobbyists are the recipients of lampooning portrayals and sensationalized news coverage. Little attention is given to how most lobbyists simply do their job by helping staff draft legislative language, or providing members with quality policy and political information. Lobbyists rely on building and maintaining strong relationships with those in power. If they do that, they’ll succeed in advancing their policy objectives within the give-and-take process of the American legislative system.
In a Washington Times editorial entitled “Lobbyist are good people too”, former Clinton advisor and now Washington lobbyist, Lanny Davis responded to those who bashed lobbyists. Davis said, “They are wrong because lobbyists spend much of their time with members of Congress and their staffs providing factual and expert information about legislation that affects their clients. Their clients are companies that employ people, real people, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people who deserve to be considered when laws are made. The First Amendment protects petitioning and communicating with government.” I’m not so sure lobbyists are as pure as the driven snow, but I agree that not all lobbyists or lobbying is bad.
Not all lobbyists are bad, but I do believe the lobbying industry is full of people who are more interested in peddling influence than information. Like hired gunslingers, lobbyists often are former legislators who sell their skill to use past relationships to influence legislation for a few scheckles.
Several years ago I wrote an op/ed entitled, ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ It prompted a response from a major Washington lobbyist who said I was wrong in insinuating lobbyists expected a ‘return on their investment’ when they entertained a legislator- particularly something as so small as a lunch. He was right- no self-respecting legislator is going to sell his vote for lunch- it’s going to take a good campaign contribution for that. What the ‘K streeter’ didn’t say was that lobbyists represent organizations with political action committees that dole out campaign money to people who are voting like they want them to. While that is their right, principled legislators must recognize there is no such thing as a free lunch. Those checks come with strings attached.
In the Sunday edition of The Oklahoman, a front page story on lobbying at the Oklahoma State Capitol revealed that thirty two former legislators, including fifteen Republicans, are working their former colleagues on behalf of their clients. Some of these former lawmakers just left the legislature, others have been gone a while, but the common thread is they didn’t return to the true private sector. It seems that a lot of former Oklahoma legislators wind up in some state job or at a lobbying firm when they leave office? Are these former Oklahoma lawmakers so bumbling incompetent, they can’t get work in the real private sector? Will no one hire them?
Lobbyists in Oklahoma must register with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission each year or within five days of engaging in lobbying. They have to submit two reports each year showing which legislators they entertained and the value of each gift given to the legislators. There are three hundred and ninety registered lobbyists in Oklahoma according to the Ethics Commission. That means that nearly 10% of the lobbyists at the State Capitol are former legislators.
State Representative John Trebilcock, (R-Tulsa) is running a bill that would establish a ‘cooling off period’ for outgoing legislators. Trebilcock, an attorney, says, “I was always concerned with the perception that in the last term of a legislator, they would be more interested in lining up what they’re going to do next as opposed to working for the people.” His bill makes sense and perhaps it would force some outgoing lawmakers to get a ‘real job,’ but not likely. If he really wants to make a difference, Trebilcock should run a bill that would ban anyone who has ever served in the legislature from lobbying. It wouldn't likely go anywhere because legislators would be cutting off a potential source of income in their future.
Lobbying is about the first amendment. Corporations and associations are made up of people and those people- individually and collectively- have a right to express their views on an issue. The problem starts when former members of a legislative body use their knowledge of the legislative system and their relationships with former colleagues to ‘buy’ votes with a bowl of porridge.