Thursday, June 08, 2006

167: “Do You Want True Lobbying Reform?”

Harrisburg Online (this morning):

Speaker of the State House John Perzel yesterday rolled-out his proposed lobbying reform legislation that differs with requirements imposed by Senate rules or by the Governor's fiat...Perzel's proposal requires that any organization or company spending more than $10,000 a year to influence state government decisions to reveal what issue was lobbied and how much was spent...unless the House, Senate and Governor's ideas can be merged into one workable law, lobbyists will be burdened with more paperwork than the ridiculous demands of the Sarbanes-Oxley federal corporate accounting law...

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am out of step with the times, but I just do not believe that to be the case. In fact, although it seems a bit arrogant, I believe the times are out of step with me.

Obviously, Harrisburg Online does not like this move because it is published by one of the larger lobbying firms in the state (Greenlee Partners, LLC). Lobbying firms would love to have any requirements for reporting, and limits on their spending removed, giving them unfettered access, and unfettered spending amounts to influence government decision making, particularly in the General Assembly.

There is the arrogance in this issue.

The People’s Business
We send elected legislators to Harrisburg to do the people’s business. But since the advent of professional lobbying, it has become evident that it is not the people’s business that is conducted in our legislature, it is the business of the lobbyists. In fact, it has been increasingly difficult for an individual to meet with their representative at all.

When the lobbying industry (and that is exactly what it is – an industry) is the main force for legislation (witness the gambling bill of 2004) in our state, and the people no longer have direct access to their State Senators and State Representatives, and no longer wield influence with them except that based on the amount contributed to their reelection campaign funds, then the General Assembly is no longer doing the people’s business.

When the lobbying industry spends more than $10,000 per year on one issue, then there is no such thing as a level playing field. Few people can afford to match that kind of influence on their legislators. Those that can will hire lobbying firms like Greenlee Partners, LLC.

This is very important for you to understand: it was lobbying by the gambling industry that got Act 71, the State Gambling Act, enacted in the dark of a July night in 2004. It was millions of dollars of money from Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Indian Tribes that got paid out in “entertainment” of Pennsylvania’s legislative leadership, and senior General Assembly members.

You weren’t asked. You weren’t consulted. You were not allowed to know the bill was under consideration. You were not allowed to comment on the bill How could you if you did not know it had even been proposed? All of this violates not only the letter, but the spirit of the Constitution of Pennsylvania.

What could possibly make supposedly good men and women, sent to the General Assembly to do the people’s business, go so far into “the dark side” in order to pass such a law?

The answer lies completely in the millions of dollars of lobbyist’s money rained on the leadership of the General Assembly.

To put it another way, leadership was bought. And for their 30 pieces of silver, leadership then forced their caucuses across the line into “the dark side” with them.

What is Lobbyist Reform?
Lobbyist reform is talking about disclosure. That’s pretty slick. John Perzel wants you to believe he is talking Reform! So lobbyists will continue to have unfettered access to the legislature with unfettered checkbooks. The only thing that changes is that lobbying firms will be required to report on any issues that required them to spend more than $10,000.

So, outfits like Greenlee Partners, LLC, which has as part of its clientele, gambling interests, would be able to break down their issues into such categories as slots suppliers, zoning boards for proposed slots parlors, modifying Act 71 to allow for table games, getting the tourism board to include the casinos in their national advertising campaigns, etc. There are four “issues” that might be better combined under “gambling”. So, we have identified a loophole in Perzel’s proposal.

It is that easy. Most lobbying firms are also law firms. Lawyers love to play word games, parsing the meaning of words down to the nth degree in order to win a point.

So, what do you do to fix the lobbying issue? Can you make it much more complex than Perzel is trying to do? Can you put limits on lobbyist’s spending?

Again, you run into loopholes.

Logic demands that there is one answer: Occam’s Razor. William of Occam (also Ockham) was a 14th century monk and philosopher from South East England. He developed a logical principle (called Occam’s Razor) that in essence says that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In Latin, it reads: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, which means: entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

The simplest answer to lobbying reform is to do away with lobbying altogether. Level the playing field, and put the people back into the professional lives of the members of the General Assembly.

How will it work?
No matter how you cut it, lobbying, as it is practiced now, is simply bribery. Buying influence. Outlawing professional lobbying is relatively simple, but calls for strict measures. For example, we recommend this:

  • Make illegal any approach to legislatures by a person representing someone else’s interests. (Exception: non profit organizations, and community organizations.)
  • Make illegal the transfer of any item of value, including money, by any person seeking to influence government. (Not even a pencil!). Make it a felony.
  • Any person or entity doing so would be subject to a $5,000 fine and mandatory $3 years in prison.
  • The legislator, or legislator’s staff member who accepts such compensation would be subject to a $5,000 fine, and a mandatory 3 years in prison, and loss of all benefits and retirement from the state. Acceptance of such compensation by any member of the legislator’s family would be covered under this.

Hard and cold. But if you truly want to end the corruption and graft in Harrisburg, these are the major steps you MUST take to do so.

So, the result is that if you want your legislator to support a bill, you make an appointment and go see him or her, or you call them on the phone, and make your case. If you are the CEO of a large corporation you call your Representative or you make an appointment and go see him or her in his or her office. No entertaining. No junkets. No freebies. No tickets to movies, sports events, concerts, etc. Not even a pencil. If you are that CEO, you are on an equal footing with Joe Sixpack when it comes to access to your legislator.

Current legislative leadership, and the Governor himself lack the necessary anatomical parts required to take such a step. It will take a large body of Reformers on the floor of both chambers, driven by a grassroots movement to accomplish this task.

Law firm lobbyists will fight this to the death…giving them an opportunity to actually practice law for a change instead of buying influence with legislative leadership.

Corporations will not like this because they feel they influence the economy far more than you do.

Well, perhaps a very few of them do, but most of them do not influence the economy as much as the ten thousand constituents in each of the Legislative or Senatorial Districts do.

The largest amounts of money expended in lobbying as recorded in the Pennsylvania Senate is done by the Health Care industry. That certainly bears some looking into, but perhaps another day.

Don’t you think it is time to stop this? Don’t you think there has been enough graft and corruption in Harrisburg?

If you don’t, then you believe in business as usual, and Reform is just a meaningless term to you.

If you do, then you will climb on board the Reform bandwagon (which embraces much more than just lobbying reform). Get active. Get political. And always, always, always remember that true Reform transcends partisan politics, but will make partisan politics better in the future.


Support Russ Diamond for Governor!

“Kick the hubris out of Harrisburg!” -- THE CENTRIST

“Be steadfast in your anger, be sure in your convictions, be moved by the right and certainty that abuse of power must be defeated at every turn; uphold Liberty as the just reward of a watchful people, and let not those who have infringed upon that Liberty steal it away from you. Never loosen your grip on Liberty!"

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