Lobbyists often get a bad rap, and not always deservedly so.
As we heard this week during a BDN event focused on environmental action from the business community, lobbyists can play an important role in providing information and helping to advocate for worthwhile causes — like the environment — and can serve as a voice for individuals and groups who simply don’t have the time to travel to Augusta or Washington.
But the revolving door between legislating and lobbying, where former elected officials and their staff members immediately trade their public servant roles for more lucrative jobs in the private sector and work to influence their former colleagues, deserves the heavy scrutiny it often receives.
It’s the kind of questionable, transactional governance that can energize liberals and conservatives alike, simultaneously a symbol of corporate greed and “The Swamp.” So it’s almost not a surprise that Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — two lawmakers who would seem to have almost nothing in common — see eye to eye on the idea of a lobbying ban for former legislators.
“If you are a member of Congress and leave, you shouldn’t be allowed to turn right around and leverage your service for a lobbyist check,” Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Democrat from New York, tweeted in late May. “I don’t think it should be legal at all to become a corporate lobbyist if you’ve served in Congress. At minimum there should be a long wait period.”
It only took Cruz about an hour to respond with an offer to work together.
“Here’s something I don’t say often: on this point, I agree with @AOC,” he said. “The Swamp would hate it, but perhaps a chance for some bipartisan cooperation?”
Unsurprisingly, Washington lobbyists were quick to lobby, through the media, against the idea.
“Fundamentally, you have a First Amendment problem. You’re banning a class of people from petitioning lawmakers,” Rich Gold of law firm Holland & Knight, told The Hill.
Banning former lawmakers from lobbying, however, doesn’t prevent them from petitioning lawmakers — it prevents them from petitioning for profit. Legal scholars we are not, but surely that difference matters. And it’s not as if lobbying restrictions don’t exist already. Just look at Maine.
To be clear, the strength of Maine’s government ethics laws isn’t exactly something to brag about. The state received a failing grade in a 2015 transparency and accountability analysis from the Center for Public Integrity, ranking 43rd in the country overall. But, state policymakers have taken the sensible step of preventing former members of the Maine Legislature from returning to Augusta right away as lobbyists.
That law, passed in 2013, introduced a so-called cooling-off period and nominally required former state lawmakers to wait a year before they can work as paid lobbyists. The approach is used in many states across the country.
The well intended measure here in Maine, however, actually proved to have a loophole that allowed former lawmakers to still do some paid lobbying in their first year out of office, as long as they didn’t exceed eight hours of that activity each month.
Thankfully our legislators, led by Government Oversight Committee Chair Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, took measured and appropriate action this session to make Maine’s one-year cooling off period actually mean something. An amended version of Chenette’s bill closed the loophole. It passed unanimously in both houses of the Maine Legislature, and Gov. Janet Mills signed it into law in April.
Perhaps the unlikely pair of Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez should take a look at how Maine has taken a modest step to boost good governance and public trust by diminishing the power of the revolving door. An all-out ban on federal legislators becoming lobbyists may not be practical or passable, but the duo should work on a cooling-off period like the one used in Maine and other states.