To keep government ethical, Maine needs law to prevent lawmakers from becoming lobbyists

By Barbara A. McDade, Special to the BDN
Posted Feb. 28, 2013, at 1:12 p.m.

It’s time for Maine to close the revolving door that allows public servants to turn government service into lucrative private sector employment.

The Legislature is considering two proposals to establish a “cooling-off period” before former government officials can work as lobbyists or for companies they once regulated. These or similar proposals should be enacted.

In the founding days of our republic, being paid to lobby on someone else’s behalf was considered unethical. Citizens were expected to act on their own behalf; it was their civic and moral duty. People who took money to put their reputation and integrity in the service of interests and beliefs that were not their own were viewed as corrupt.

We’ve come a long way. Lobbying now is widely employed at all levels of government. The explosion of federal lobbying over the last few decades means that $3.28 billion was spent lobbying Congress in 2012. That’s more than $6 million per member in just one year.

What does that have to do with Maine? We’re a small state; everyone knows everyone. We don’t have that kind of corruption. But here in Maine, lobbyists were compensated a total $4.8 million for 2011, during the first session of the 125th Legislature, according to the Maine Ethics Commission. That’s almost $26,000 per legislator, and that’s still a lot of money. Professional lobbyists spent almost twice as much per member trying to influence votes as the state paid legislators to cast those votes.

The rise of a system dominated by paid lobbyists has resulted in a practice where our right to petition government is tilted in favor of those who can pay. Few citizens can afford to attend the Legislature every day it is in session. Only those who can hire someone to represent them can afford that kind of presence.

Questions of “fair access” are heightened when some lobbyists have easier access to lawmakers than others, and this is especially true for “revolving door” lobbyists – those former legislators or executive branch officials who leave government to go into the private sector and work to influence their former colleagues.

Another concern is that legislators andexecutive branch officials might be influenced by the prospect of future employment, and this may affect their decisions while in government. Public officials could try to ingratiate themselves with lobbying firms or future employers by favoring their interests, hoping for future employment offers. It need not be a blatant quid pro quo; employment offers need not be tendered for these considerations to come into play. That’s one way self-interest and special interests can subtly distort the functions of government and make it less responsive to the will of the people.

Finally, there’s the appearance factor. Even if it’s only the appearance of favoritism or self-interest, appearance is important. It helps citizens keep faith with government and reduces skepticism about public officials. The moral sense of every citizen should be offended if sitting legislators solicit lobbying clients during their legislative terms so they are ready to begin lobbying the day after their terms end.

We should be offended if senior executive branch officials leave government service to take lucrative positions with the private sector firms they previously regulated. Situations like these may or may not make government more responsive to special interests, but they certainly make it appear so.

Government should be responsive to the will of the people. It should be free from undue influence, corruption and the appearance of corruption. Two proposals before the legislature from Reps. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, and Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, would establish a one-year cooling-off period during which senior executive branch officials may not work for anyone regulated by their agency during their service and during which legislators may not register as lobbyists.

These proposals are a good start. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, Maine is one of only 15 states nationwide that has no cooling-off provisions. Other proposals are expected later this term, including one from the governor.

These proposals help prevent self-interest from distorting the motivations of our public servants, and they contribute to public confidence in government. We urge the committee of jurisdiction to work these bills earnestly, and we urge the Legislature to enact these or similar reforms.

Barbara A. McDade is president of the League of Women Voters of Maine.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/02/28/opinion/contributors/to-keep-government-ethical-maine-needs-law-to-prevent-lawmakers-from-becoming-lobbyists/ printed on April 23, 2014