Lobbyists say you can’t expect a legislator to change a vote based on a nice meal or even a good seat at a concert or a ball game.
That’s probably true most of the time.
But lobbyists are salespeople hired to persuade decision-makers in the Legislature and in the agencies of the executive branch. They are not necessarily interested in feeding and watering those officials, but in having enough time together to make a case for whatever notion they’re pushing.
The dinners, drinks and entertainment make the face time a little more pleasant, but it is the face time — not the steaks and bourbon — that make the spending worthwhile from the lobbyists’ standpoint.
“You’re building a relationship that 26 million people don’t have,” says Jim Clancy, an attorney and a member of the Texas Ethics Commission.
Which is why it is relatively meaningless to have a lobby reporting law that does not attach the name of the beneficiaries to the benefits.
“If it’s disclosure, then disclose,” Clancy says.
State law requires disclosure, but with loopholes that almost always protect officeholders and their employees from accountability and transparency.
Lobbyists don’t have to report the names of the legislators they are entertaining unless the expenditures go over $114 per day. Austin can be an expensive venue for fine diners, but $114 is plenty. If it’s not, multiple lobbyists can split the tab, and as long as no single lobbyist spends more than $114 on a particular lawmaker, the freeloader’s name doesn’t go in the reports.
Clancy cites an analysis prepared for commissioners that shows how often the lobby’s food and beverage reports named the legislators and employees being entertained. Over the last decade, the detailed reports never accounted for even 5 percent of total spending.
Once again, for emphasis: More than 95 percent of the money spent by lobbyists during the last decade on food and beverages for state officials and their employees was reported — legally — without naming the recipients of those repasts.
And the amounts spent are significant, according to the commission’s online database of lobby reports. Over the last two years, lobbyists reporting spending $4.7 million on food and beverage for state officials and employees and their relatives and another $846,000 on entertainment such as concerts and games. Interestingly, they spent $2.5 million on legislative branch employees. By comparison, lobbyists spent less than $400,000 on state senators, $1.5 million on state representatives, and $1.6 million at events where all legislators were invited.
Lawmakers have filed several bills to change the reporting requirements, if not the spending. Some would cut to $50 the amount that can be spent before the beneficiaries have to be named. At least one bill, by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would make that an absolute limit — one that would apply whether the money came from one lobbyist or several. Gov. Greg Abbott said during his State of the State speech last month that lawmakers should dedicate this legislative session to ethics reform. Several lawmakers have proposed legislation in answer to his call.
Lobbyists say the things they buy are not favors to be returned — that Texas legislators won’t change their votes for a meal or a drink. That doesn’t mean it is an empty gesture.
“What does it get the lobbyist? A return phone call,” Clancy says.
That’s the part that never gets disclosed. It’s one thing to know that a particular lobbyist paid for entertainment or a meal at a particular place at a particular time, but none of that reveals anything about whether the spending did the lobbyists or their clients any good. To know that, you have to know who they were entertaining and then watch that beneficiary’s votes, debates and other actions.
The only thing that matters goes undisclosed more than 95 percent of the time.
Lawmakers are barred from taking campaign contributions during legislative sessions, for fear that those transactions might influence votes. Clancy shakes his head about that.
“Texas law prevents them from taking money during a session from the people who elected them,” he says, “But we allow them to take benefits during a session from people who are paid to influence them.”