Of all possible obstacles to ethics reform, who thought the biggest one would be defining the word “lobbyist”? Yet, that’s where we stand today.
For years, the biggest obstacle was getting legislators to take up the issue of lobbyist gifts to legislators. Georgia is one of three states with no restrictions at all on them.
House Speaker David Ralston was one of the strongest, and most powerful, objectors to regulating these gifts. To Ralston’s credit, he responded to public pressure by revealing this past week two mostly good bills. Among other changes, his bills would ban nearly all lobbyist gifts to state and local officials; require campaign contributions in the run-up to the session to be reported within days (rather than in July); and, critically, restore the state ethics commission’s rule-making authority.
Now, if we can only figure out who the lobbyists are.
It sounds easy, right? After all, everyone knows what lobbying is: an effort to influence public officials to do something.
But there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. On the contrary, freedom of speech and the right to petition the government are enshrined in the First Amendment.
The original text of Ralston’s bill ran afoul of those rights. Its definition of who must register with the state as a lobbyist was far too broad, conceivably affecting everyone from school children meeting multiple legislators at the Capitol to folks addressing their local county commission.
Again to their credit, Ralston and other House leaders seem to be responding to criticism in good faith. Rep. Rich Golick, the Smyrna Republican who chairs the subcommittee handling these bills, repeatedly promised during a Thursday hearing to offer a narrower definition soon. All eyes will be on that revision.
But Golick and other legislators at Thursday’s hearing openly struggled to define “lobbyist” properly. Who deserves that label and the restrictions that come with it?
Is a lobbyist anyone representing anyone else? If so, does that include church pastors?
Is it anyone paid by another entity? Same question about pastors. Only people paid specifically to lobby? If so, you’ll see a lot of new business cards without the words “government affairs” printed on them.
How about only those who represent for-profit entities? That’d omit non-profit hospitals with a clear interest in how much the state spends on health care.
Maybe it’s anyone arguing for or against a measure in which he, or an entity he represents, has a financial stake. If so, could citizens not speak their minds about income-tax legislation?
Only people who hold a certain number of meetings with legislators? That’d be welcome news for certain large corporations whose lobbyists rarely show up at the Capitol until there’s a specific bill they want to push or kill — and which almost always get their way.
That last bit gets to the heart of public concern with lobbying: the belief certain folks have undue influence over legislators.
“Undue,” and for that matter “influence,” are in the eye of the beholder. So here’s my unlobbied-for advice: Cast the net broadly in terms of registration, to maximize the number of people subject to the new restrictions about gifts, but keep the burden on them as low as possible.
Require a fee and report-filing only from those who, on their own or some other person or entity’s behalf, spend more than a certain amount on lobbying expenses. Create sufficient penalties for anyone who games the system.
Then fix a couple of other problems with the bills: Close the exception for food and beverages provided to entire committees or subcommittees, and perhaps require travel reimbursements for “official duties” to be pre-approved by the ethics commission.
And then move on.
– By Kyle Wingfield