Lobbyists’ gifts not the problem, we need clean elections

Representative Caleb Rowden

Last year local State Representative Caleb Rowden, announced that he will introduce an Ethics Reform Bill, several parts of which have been passed into law.. His web site outlines the major points, which focus on reducing the gifts and perks that elected officials receive from lobbyists:

  • Caps any individual lobbyist gift at $50, and caps the total amount of gifts a legislator can receive at $500/quarter.
  • Implements a two year ‘cooling off period’ before a legislator can become a lobbyist.
  • Specifies that all dinners/activity outside of the Capitol building must be reported individually by lobbyists and may not be reported as a group or committee.
  • Specifies that any campaign contribution above $500 received during the session must be reported within 72 hours to the Missouri Ethics Commission. (right now it is $5000).

Politically, Rowden is probably right to attack lobbyist gifts. After continuing to take flak for voting against his constituents’ interests, he needs to get a different meme going by “taking on” the special interests. There is nothing that raises the hackles of us cynical citizens more than hearing of “fat cats” receiving free lunches, gifts, trips and other benefits of lobbyist largess. An article by Rudi Keller in the Columbia Daily Tribune on Sunday detailed some of that largess:

Over the 24 months ending Oct. 31, lobbying groups seeking to influence lawmakers spent $1.9 million on 20,884 gifts for the 197 state legislators, ranging from cheap meals and refreshments for traveling student groups to prime seats at MU basketball and football games and overseas trips.

But while free meals and game tickets buy access, they don’t seem to buy votes. The public might be angry about lawmakers who accept lobbyist gifts, but many legislators are willing to accept these perks while still feeling comfortable voting against their benefactor. Democracy is not corrupted by the hundreds of dollars given directly to legislators in the form of meals, game tickets or other gifts. That is a red herring. The real problem is the hundreds of thousands millions of dollars that lobbyists and their interests give to election campaigns. A free dinner is easy to turn down. A million dollars for your campaign for Attorney General in two years is not.

Again, from Rudi’s article:

During 2012, Missouri political committees accepted 1,487 campaign contributions of $10,000 or more, accounting for $65.2 million raised for that year’s elections. The list includes 105 contributions of $100,000 or more.

Imagine you are in the General Assembly and know you will have to raise between $200,000 and $2,000,000 for your next re-election campaign. Can you afford to vote against a special interest that says it “wants to support you” and has access to that type of cash? When you know they have given checks of over $100K in the past? Few legislators would choose to vote against such a well-funded special interest, especially if the legislator wants to seek statewide office. (One of the reasons why Rowden and others will simply not vote at all, rather than vote against their backers.)

Look at our own local Senator, Kurt Schaefer, who changed his moderate ways as soon as he defeated Mary Still for re-election. Due to term limits, he can’t run again, so he is already voting to win the influence and money he need to become Attorney General.

Right now, state legislators on both sides are at the mercy of a system that forces them to take large contributions from powerful interests to win their seats in the state assembly. In exchange for their passage into the halls of power, most legislators enter into a system of indentured servitude to the moneyed special interests in Jefferson City.

Term-limits: Pouring Gas on The Fire

I’m sure that even the most good-hearted lawmakers can rationalize taking the money from any source for their campaigns: If they don’t retain their seats in the legislature, they can’t do any good work. The problem is that most lawmakers don’t want to just retain their seats any longer. Term limits (Four terms in the House, Two in the Senate) have accelerated the pace of turnover and career planning. Ask just about any member of the House or Senate what their plans are in X years (X being the number of years left until the are termed out of office), and you will find just a handful who plan to go back to their previous career or retire. Most have some scheme or plan for higher office, an appointment of some sort, or a job with one of the organizations or corporations then have become connected with while in the capital.

The original intent of term limits was to bust up the entrenched power in Jefferson City and reduce the unfair advantages of incumbency by creating more open races. The outcome would be more “citizen legislators” carrying the will of the people forward and then returning to private life. Think of George Washington living in Mount Pleasant instead of Mount Vernon.

However, term limits have done more harm to government than good. They have done nothing to reduce the advantage held by incumbents, have only accelerated the money race, and have reduced the average tenure in the General Assembly to only three years while increasing the influence of monied special interests in Jefferson City.

“Mel” Hancock

Melton D. “Mel” Hancock

One of the most noted supporters of term limits, former Congressman Mel Hancock, realized his mistake before his passing in 2011 and advocated for abolishing term limits. “I was directly involved in the initiative petition drive to place the term limit amendment on the Missouri Constitution. I helped get signatures, raised money and campaigned for its passage. I was wrong,” Hancock wrote.

Hancock continued: “My erroneous conclusion was that term-limited representatives would have to return to the private sector. They would then have to live with the laws they passed while they held public office. I failed to consider one major fault that was an unintended consequence. Due to the rapid increase in the number of government jobs, term limits created an atmosphere whereby elected representatives can pass laws arranging for their personal future income both in government and the private sector. They can create government jobs for after they leave office by passing special interest legislation, with a job in mind, while holding public office. They can even lobby for jobs as lobbyists. This is not only unethical, but also dangerous to the welfare of the taxpayers. … I regret my mistake.”

[In my opinion, term limits also go against the idea of democratically elected representatives. For example, from 1994 to 2002, Tim Harlan was my representative in the Missouri House. Harlan represented me and my values well in the General Assembly. Yet, when it came time to once again choose my representative in Jefferson City in November 2002, the state barred me from selecting Harlan to serve as my representative just because he had served in that capacity in previous years. Why can’t I vote for the person whom I want to represent me?]

Money Matters

Rex Sinquefield

A number of years ago, the Missouri Citizens Education Fund, an outgrowth of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, analyzed whether the donations from Rex Sinquefield (Missouri’s most generous campaign donor) to political campaigns have translated into votes in the state legislature. For the purposes of their study, they tracked two of Sinquefield’s pet issues: allowing unlimited campaign contributions, and directing tax dollars to fund private schools (aka vouchers).

The voting records show that 86 percent of Missouri House members who received money from Sinquefield voted in favor of allowing unlimited campaign contribution limits and 79 percent of members who received Sinquefield money voted in favor of channeling public money to private schools. It is probably impossible to prove Sinquefield’s donations directly caused legislators to vote a certain way; all this study shows is a strong correlation between campaign contributions and votes, not necessarily a causal relationship. However, one can be certain that legislators who vote as Sinquefield wishes will have a better chance of returning to Jefferson City in subsequent years.

It is a simple fact that in the wilderness of today’s politics, those political creatures with the most money have a better chance of survival. Sinquefield has made no bones about the fact that he is expecting results for his money. He would not have spent millions unless he was expecting a return on that investment. Sinquefield has made a career out of making good investments and intends to use his money to gain support for his ideas. While a strong correlation between contributions and votes might not prove votes are bought, it certainly seems a conflict of interest exists when a lawmaker receives $30,000, $100,000 or even $1,000,000 from a single citizen who is also lobbying for the passage of a bill.

For many governing bodies — the city council, county commission or even the hospital board — just the perception of a conflict of interest is enough to require a member to abstain from a critical vote. Unfortunately, no such ethical standards seem to exist in the General Assembly. And as the cost of campaigns continues to escalate, the influence of wealthy donors will continue to increase.

The sins of commission are bad enough, but the sins of omission probably affect us more. Issues that affect the majority of people — such as access to health care and insurance, road safety, public utility infrastructure, fair wages — are pushed aside so issues of concern to major campaign donors can be debated at length.

Sinquefield is sincere when he says he is making these donations “to try to make Missouri a better place.” But if we only allow those with money to shape the future of our state, then whom will Missouri be for? Do we really want to live in a plutocracy, where only the wealthy decide what and who is important?

Stop trying to fix a broken system, time for a new system.

Limiting lunches, event tickets and other perks form lobbyists would have little effect in fixing this system. If we want real change, we need to provide some alternative form of campaign financing for officeholders. Voluntary public financing of campaigns, known as Clean Elections, has been used in several other states.

Public financing provides a way for officeholders to break the chains of the moneyed special interests and return to representing the interests of their constituents. Such a system will not come about on its own and will not be easy to enact — the lobbyists in Jefferson City know how to work the system and enjoy having our representatives in their pockets — but it is the only way to restore representative democracy.

The fact is that our current campaign finance system has left the candidates and their political parties locked in a cold war of sorts when it comes to large contributions. While there are those in each party who are appalled by the influence of money in our political system, neither side feels it can stop accepting large contributions without giving the other side an advantage. Just tweaking the current system will not lessen big money’s influence in our elections. What we need is an alternative system that will give candidates the ability to refuse large contributions without handing their elections to their opponents.

Several states have already developed such alternatives in the form of voluntary public campaign finance systems that allow candidates to get off the “fundraising treadmill” and focus on issues that matter to their constituents. Rather than mandate public financing for all candidates, the public financing systems in several states are strictly voluntary. Candidates may choose to either finance their campaigns with private contributions or participate in the public system.

In these systems, when a candidate accepts public financing, he or she agrees to forgo or at least large private contributions. Moreover, these systems are often funded by a surcharge on traffic tickets, which avoids the problem of directing tax dollars to political campaigns. If you don’t want your money going to political campaigns, then don’t speed!

By providing an alternative funding mechanism for political campaigns, we can give our office holders and candidates the chance to spend their time listening to voters instead of courting donors. Until we have such an alternative for our candidates in Missouri, we can be assured that big money will make its way into political campaigns regardless of any so-called “Ethics Reform.” And as long as this system of mutually-assured corruption continues, the priorities for our state government will be set by those with money to spend.

NOTE: Several Paragraphs and parts of this piece originally appeared in my editorial columns for the Columbia Daily Tribune.

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