Politics

Lobby Decoration

There are some tough-sounding new lobby laws. It remains to be seen how much they amount to.
by | March 2006

If there's one thing any smart lobbyist ought to know, it's not to celebrate too loud when you win a big one. But a bunch of Florida lobbyists forgot themselves, and as a result they are stuck with an inconvenient new law. The law, which requires anyone who lobbies to file quarterly reports about fees and activities, had been a top priority for state Senate President Tom Lee, but there was less enthusiasm about it in the House, and it failed to win a majority there. House leaders grew miffed, however, when lobbyists who were gathered outside the chamber cheered lustily at the bill's defeat. The measure got brought up again, with a strict gift ban added to it. Cynics said that was a ploy designed to make it impossible to pass, but it passed anyway.

The new law in Florida is one of a large crop that has been appearing in state capitols lately. Lobby regulation was a hot topic in many legislatures even before Congress got religion on the issue following Jack Abramoff's plea deal. These bills tend to pop up under similar circumstances--there's nothing like a good scandal to get reformers' juices flowing. (There was even an Abramoff-style private-jet golf outing that helped prompt the Florida measure.) In Tennessee, Governor Phil Bredesen convened a special session earlier this year to address lobbying practices in the face of an FBI sting operation that snared four legislators on bribery and corruption charges.

But a good scandal doesn't always lead to reform with real teeth. The Wisconsin legislature has been enmeshed in a seemingly endless payola scandal that has led to several convictions. The response? A new bill to ban convicted felons from lobbying. If that sounds like a rather narrow approach to the problem, it is. But it also sheds light on the difficulties of placing any meaningful controls on the entire lobbying enterprise.

Wisconsin couldn't respond to the current scandal with a tough new anti-gift law, for the simple reason that it already has one of the toughest in the country. That didn't prevent huge transfers of money between interest groups and legislators from taking place anyway. A court had ruled that the gift law's key phrase--that legislators could not accept "anything of value"--didn't apply to campaign contributions. That made it all but toothless. "I can't think of anything that has more value to a politician than a campaign contribution," says Mike McCabe, of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Lobbying is a billion-dollar activity in the states. It can't be banned, and so--as with attempts to restrict campaign spending--it will continue to generate excesses no matter what kind of restriction legislators put on the practice. Usually the restrictions aren't enforced too well anyway. More than half the legislatures regulate themselves, through ethics committees. And the legislatures that are watched by outside entities, not surprisingly, tend not to give the watchdogs much in the way of resources or subpoena power.

Some critics complain that the very ineffectiveness of laws meant to limit influence peddling is a large part of their post-scandal appeal. "I think they are something of a façade that lawmakers can point to," suggests Leah Rush, of the Center for Public Integrity. "They say, 'Look how ethical we are--we have laws.'"

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