A brief look at how states define “lobbyist” and how they use revolving door prohibitions.
For all the attention drawn to Congress, a lot of corporate lobbying actually happens in state legislatures. Not only does this reflect the fact that much of public policy in the U.S. is debated and determined at the state level, but it also shows that businesses and other groups recognize this and seek influence here.
Now, not all lobbying is bad. While the term itself is a bit of a dirty word in the U.S., lobbying is supposed to be a means for which citizens, communities, and groups can advocate for themselves or their views to lawmakers. That includes nonprofits looking to improve how the state government operates. For example, I used to work for a nonprofit that lobbied (in the official “lobbying” sense and the non-legal, general sense) lawmakers in Illinois to provide more funding for human services in the state after years of disinvestment. That’s good lobbying.
Still, ickier instances of lobbying eat up a lot of the public’s attention and it’s why state-level lobbying produces legislation that favors corporations’ interests over people’s.
There are some measures states take to regulate lobbying in their capitols to curb this influence, increase transparency, or otherwise prevent bad behavior (e.g., corruption or pay-to-play schemes). Let’s take a look at two fairly simple ones: clearly defining the term “lobbyist” and instituting “revolving door prohibitions.”
This may seem like a very obvious step in preventing misbehavior (and it is). But murky language dictating who exactly is a lobbyist has prompted abuse in some states. States that lack precise language effectively allow their legislators to make money on the side, frequently through lobbying-related deals.
Let’s turn to Illinois for an example of how a loose rule on this can be circumvented. Last year, a state legislator was caught trying to bribe a peer to support a piece of legislation that would have legalized “sweepstakes” slot machines. This legislator did so because, thanks to a loophole in Illinois’ law, he was also a registered lobbyist in Chicago for a gaming company that sold these slot machines.
Doing this is a federal crime, so the legislator did face repercussions—just not any charges from the state. This might not have been the case if Illinois restricted “cross-lobbying,” in which a lawmaker at one level of government can lobby a separate level.
The legality of this practice notwithstanding, it can become clear pretty quickly that operating this way brings with it questionable ethics. If lawmakers are allowed to make money as lobbyists on the side, then eventually someone will do this. This can lead to promoting legislation that favors their own personal interests and not those of the public.
Here’s one quick hypothetical instance to drive this home. Mr. Bob Blahblah is a state representative and a registered lobbyist in Madeupsville for a medical supply company. Since he’s a lobbyist with this firm, Blahblah could make extra cash if this medical supply company gets a contract with the state. So, Blahblah pushes hard to get this done and voila, the company is awarded the contract, is paid the big bucks in taxpayer money, and this company pays Blahblah. Not only is this unfair for other potential medical supply vendors, but who’s to say this particular company’s supply is of an acceptable quality? Did this company really earn the contract, or did it just get it because Blahblah wanted to get paid?
Since this kind of thing involves more than one level of government, it can be hard to follow and harder to tackle after the fact. One simple and obvious solution is to clearly explain legislators cannot also be lobbyists; this can be include restricting state lawmakers from lobbying other levels of government, too.
Revolving Door Prohibitions
As the previous section showed, bad lobbying practices can allow corporations and lawmakers to favor their own interests over the public’s. It’s a similar situation with the legislator/public official-to-lobbyist “revolving door.”
It’s not uncommon for those who recently left working in or on behalf of government to find employment as lobbyists. It makes some sense, as they have important info on how legislation and policy is crafted. Having someone with that institutional knowledge can give lobbying firms, special interest groups, and corporations an edge. As Public Citizen puts it, this can present three threats to governmental integrity:
- Public officials may be influenced in official actions by the implicit or explicit promise of a lucrative job in the private sector with an entity seeking a government contract or to shape public policy.
- Public officials-turned-lobbyists will have access to lawmakers that is not available to others, access that can be sold to the highest bidder among industries seeking to lobby.
- The special access and inside connections to sitting government officials by former officials-turned-lobbyists comes at a hefty price tag, providing wealthy special interests that can afford hiring such revolvers with a powerful means to influence government unavailable to the rest of the public.
So, the revolving door can be a bad thing. The federal government and most states recognize this and have revolving door prohibitions (RDPs) or “cooling-off periods” in place. These restrict public officials and employees from becoming lobbyists immediately following their time in government. These periods range from six months to two years at the state-level. Here’s a breakdown of which states have RDPs:
As noted in the map, states differ in exactly what these prohibitions include and exclude. Some, like Mississippi, Nevada, and Ohio, prohibit state lawmakers and employees from operating as lobbyists in the particular policy areas they worked within. (E.g., a member of the state legislature’s transportation committee might be prevented from lobbying former peers on transportation-related things, at least for a few years.) Meanwhile, Maine and Missouri have RDPs, but these don’t cover unpaid lobbying. For a more complete breakdown of all these differences, check out this nifty table I put together.
Here’s the long and short of it: RDPs can be a useful way to lower the influence corporations and wealthy special interest groups have in state legislatures, and they deter lawmakers from abusing the knowledge and access they have. Each state should have a robust RDP, ideally one that also covers state employees and has few loopholes.
The irony of these two measures is that both would almost definitely need to go through a state legislature in order to be improved/enacted. Still, I maintain they’re simple enough to put in place, especially if a state’s electorate is aware of the dangers present when these measures are absent.
Of course, there are countless other things states can do to insulate its integrity from outside influence and internal abuse. Reporting and disclosure requirements can always be improved. Additionally, states could create new oversight bodies or strengthen existing ones. For instance in Texas, the Center for Public Integrity found the Texas Ethics Commission to be “a dysfunctional body that is rarely proactive about investigations” into instances of questionable ethics and lobbying practices. With comments like this, it’s hard to argue against making some changes.
State-level legislating and other stuff is frequently overlooked, giving cover to misbehavior. This understandably chips away at the public’s trust in their state government. But this trust can be bolstered if we implement measures like the ones covered in this piece. Otherwise, we’re tempting abuse by lawmakers and giving preferential treatment of special interest groups over state residents.
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Sources and related reading:
The National Conference of State Legislatures is the place to find more info on the stuff covered above. Here are some helpful links:
- A breakdown of how each state defines “lobbyist”
- A database on reporting and disclosure requirements among the 50 states
- A database of legislation in state legislatures concerning ethics and lobbying regulations, since 2009
Also, please check out this insightful piece from the Better Government Association, an Illinois-based watchdog that has covered this topic for years.