Gift ban toothless?

Ethics debate

A nonbinding question on the July 31 ballot asks if there should be a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts to legislators. A conservative renews a call for officials to refuse perks, but an ethicist says the proposed cap only distracts from larger systemic problems.

Today’s moderator is Tom Sabulis.  Commenting is open below following Kay Godwin’s column.

By Andrew I. Cohen

The proposed lobbyist gift cap is a well-intentioned step toward more transparent state government. It has bipartisan support and watchdog groups love it. But it is a toothless measure that distracts from more fundamental problems.

This newspaper recently reported that total lobbyist gifts for public officials this year alone are nearly $1 million. Georgia is one of three states that do not restrict such gifts. Our public officials then curry public favor by pledging support for the gift cap.

Lobbyists treat some state officials to lavish trips abroad, expensive meals or pricey knickknacks. Meanwhile, our state has high unemployment, a continuing foreclosure crisis and one of the nation’s highest rates of bank failures. Many citizens are outraged that lawmakers enjoy such perks while they and their local communities struggle.

The $100 lobbyist gift cap would hardly make a dent in this. It would restrict not total giving but the amount per gift. Disclosure requirements would fall on lobbyists, not lawmakers. This is all silly. A $250 dinner with fine wine might then just be a bunch of small gifts. Get a check after each course. Feed the lawmaker’s family, too. Different people, different gifts.

It should not surprise us that lobbyists spend so much on our public officials: The money goes where the money is. Georgia’s budgets are routinely in the tens of billions of dollars. Officials have regulatory powers that can make or break businesses. So it looks as if people are buying access and paying off state officials — taking unfair shortcuts that undermine the rule of law and responsible government.

A complete ban on lobbyist gifts might be a slight improvement, but even that would not fix much. The fundamental problem is neither with lobbyists buying influence nor with lawmakers enjoying inappropriate goodies. The problem is contemporary democracy.

We have political institutions that encourage lawmakers and the voters that elect them to tax and regulate other people for their favorite projects. Whether it is through regulations that unfairly burden one group, special tax incentives to woo industry or bonds our children will have to pay off, the benefits are often concentrated but the costs are spread throughout the state. The stakes are too high.

Of course, one person’s special project is another’s vital state policy. We should then consider reforming institutions to make spending more transparent and accountable, and to connect benefits to costs. Georgia has a great tradition of local governance; this could be deepened. Among other proposals policy experts suggest are supermajorities for statewide tax increases or bond issues, and empowering the governor to have “item-reduction” vetoes in addition to the line-item veto. These measures might restrict the size of government and leave people and local communities with a greater freedom to live their own lives while minimizing the costs they impose on others. The proposed lobbyist gift cap is a paltry, misplaced bandage on a patient with more serious wounds.

Andrew I. Cohen is director of the Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics and teaches philosophy at Georgia State University.

By Kay Godwin

Our legislators often tell us that lobbyist and special interest money does not affect the way they vote on any particular issue: Being wined and dined, receiving free tickets to sporting events, enjoying complimentary hunting and vacation trips and other perks in no way influences their decision-making process. Some legislators assert that a meal from a four-star restaurant is equivalent to a hamburger from a fast-food restaurant.

It is difficult for many Georgians to accept the validity of these statements. If nothing else, through perks such as meals at high-end restaurants, vacations and tickets to sporting events, legislators interact with and become more socially familiar with benefactors; these social activities create a more intimate relationship between the benefactor and lobbyist(s) than may be established during a hamburger meal at a fast-food restaurant. Moreover, constituents who patronize luxury restaurants and events have different interests from those who can afford only the hamburger.

Georgia is the only Southern state that does not have some type of ethics-reform legislation that limits the amount of contributions a lobbyist can make to an individual legislator; it is one of only three states in America that has not passed legislation of this type for elected officials.

This is not to imply that Georgia’s legislators act unethically in their representation of citizens, or that they fail to maintain the highest ethical standards in conducting the state’s business. However, any entity that chooses to resist the accountability of its members invites public mistrust and suspicious scrutiny. This past legislative session, a major portion of Georgia’s elected officials was apathetic and arrogantly opposed to ethics reform.

Georgia Conservatives in Action is requesting Georgia’s elected officials and candidates for office to reassure their constituents that they respect the right of every Georgian to have equal access to their legislators by signing our pledge. With their signature, legislators state their willingness to hold their contributions from lobbyist and special interest groups to $100 per legislative session.

Many candidates and elected officials have chosen to sign our pledge. To those who are willing to be held publicly accountable, we say thank you for your support of ethics reform and your support of a limit on contributions made by lobbyist and special interest groups.

Kay Godwin is founder of Georgia Conservatives in Action.


9 comments Add your comment

arithmoquine

July 13th, 2012
12:15 pm

You will pardon me if I think the problem Dr. Cohen finds is not that “the stakes are too high,” in taxation and regulation but that the government is empowered to tax and regulate at all. If the problem is political corruption in the use of the government’s power to tax and regulate, then placing arbitrary restrictions on those powers is not a solution. Cohen opposes one reform intended to limit corruption and offers in its place significant limits on the government’s ability to raise revenue at all, and suggests other equally arbitrary and corruptible mechanisms with the sole object of limiting the government’s ability to tax. Cohen’s suggestions are not responses to the problem at hand, the corrupting power of money in politics, but instead are a grab bag of ideas with no connection to corruption at all whose only purpose is to limit the government’s ability to tax. Is the governor less liable to the influence of money so that we can trust the governor’s line-item vetoes and “item-reduction” vetoes to be incorruptible? If majorities are corruptible, why think supermajorities are not corruptible? Political corruption is merely the excuse to push a preexisting agenda of limiting the government’s ability to tax and regulate. What justification does Cohen offer for this agenda? Freedom! Lower taxes “leave people and local communities with a greater freedom to live their own lives while minimizing the costs they impose on others.” That is, the wealthy have greater freedom to keep their money, and the poor have greater freedom to remain poor. Freedom is not just freedom from government interference in people’s lives. Freedom is also freedom individually to improve our lives and collectively to achieve our common ends. We might perhaps, have a desire to, if you will, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The common good requires a government with the power to tax and regulate. Proposing arbitrary limits, that have no affect on the power of money to corrupt, on the ability of the government to tax and regulate undermines the common good. Banning lobbyist gifts is a better treatment for the ‘patient’ than is cutting of his or her head.

Halftrack

July 13th, 2012
11:31 am

Get’um to pass a law that all gifts regardless of size has to be reported each month and be published in the paper of Public Record of their residence. Transparency will help clean up a lot of this mess.

Skip

July 13th, 2012
10:15 am

Anyone really think these guys would ever vote to limit freebees? The rules are whatever they say they are. Always to their advantage.

Dave

July 12th, 2012
7:35 pm

I can fix the toothless part, make the ceiling $0. Put the lobbyist and the official in jail for a violation. Some years back I did some work for a state agency and was in Columbus with two state employees. It was mid-morning, there was a McDonald’s across the street and I asked if they wanted me to bring them something back to to where we were working. They started pulling out money. We had a discussion about how serious the agency was about no gifts included a dollar cup of coffee.

I’ve got a lot of respect for them and none for the pols that don’t even want a meaningless $100 cap and talk about “transparency” curing all ills.

Lobbyists don’t spend a million dollars a year with the expectation that it won’t buy them influence, they and their clients, and our representatives, know better.

Hillbilly D

July 12th, 2012
6:11 pm

These things are always toothless, at least in my lifetime.

Tom

July 12th, 2012
5:50 pm

And why is this blog using the historically-Marxist/Communist slogan of the BO campaign for a moniker, anyway?

Tom

July 12th, 2012
5:48 pm

Kay Godwin is no TRUE conservative….she’s one of the Talibaptists who tried to keep the unconstitutional law on the books barring local communities from deciding if they wanted to vote on Sunday package sales. She talks about limited government, but only until it gets in the way of her wanting to have the state legislate morality as SHE sees fit.

Hypocrisy makes Baby Jesus cry, Kay.

Bernie

July 12th, 2012
5:11 pm

This like the unfaithful Husband telling his wife that he will never cheat again! while all the while planning a rendezvous with the new girlfriend called T-SPLOST!

SAWB

July 12th, 2012
4:50 pm

While I understand that it may not solve all of our problems with corruption in government it sure as heck is a start. I say eliminate all lobbyist gifts and if the politicians don’t like they can simply not run for office.