Opinion | Jim Nowlan: We’re all lobbyists, but what can be done about them?
Remember as a teen when you devised a strategy to convince your old man to let you have the family car to go on a date Saturday night? You we’re lobbying, trying to get what you wanted. We’re all lobbyists.
In big cities, state capitols, and Washington, groups you and I belong to pay money to specialists (lobbyists) to push for what they want. Society looks down on lobbyists, as likely corrupt somehow. It isn’t the lobbying that is corrupt; it’s the money that is a commodity used by groups and their lobbyists that can be corrupting. The temptation of money can induce people to trade something, possibly even a vote, for money. Money is power and, as Lord Acton famously suggested, power ultimately corrupts.
At present in Illinois, the federal government is investigating a number of Illinois politicians for possibly making unearned personal gain at public expense. The focus is on public electric utility ComEd. House Speaker Mike Madigan held the giant electric utility in a political vice grip at a period the company was desperate to save its nuclear plants and increase consumer rates.
ComEd gave lots of good jobs to lobbyists and former legislators, possibly in return for favorable treatment on rates and the saving of its nuclear power plants, worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the giant company.
Some time ago, an insider friend of mine wondered out loud to his friend Speaker Mike Madigan about the propriety of so many legislators becoming well-paid lobbyists after they stepped down from public office. Madigan replied, “Jimmy (not his real name), what else will they do? These are the best jobs they will ever have.”
It’s the money, stupid.
When I was a backbench legislator half a century ago, there were no regulations about campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures. There was an old observation then about money and votes, maybe true: If a lawmaker’s suit jacket side-pocket flaps were out, he wouldn’t take any money, but if they were in, and greenbacks could easily be slipped in, he was open for business.
And lots of flaps were in.
As a result of years-long efforts by good government advocates such as Cindy Canary, Kent Redfield and others, Illinois now has some of the most detailed campaign and lobbying disclosure requirements in the nation. Campaign committees must file detailed quarterly reports of their receipts and expenditures. Lobbyists are also limited, for example, to $75 per day per legislator for dining after session days, all of which is reported, down to the penny.
This sunshine constrains, but apparently doesn’t eliminate, the temptation to seek personal gain from politics. Since 1976, about when we started imposing regulations and limitations, 2,000 people in Illinois have been convicted of public corruption, one of the worst records among the states.
As many of us scribblers have written, Illinois appears to have a culture of corruption. That is, if you have the opportunity to get your youngster’s DUI fixed, or to get some inside help passing a tough state licensure exam, many of us tend of take advantage of the opportunity. And money is generally involved in the transaction somewhere along the way. I’m also confident many of us contribute money to elected officials as an “insurance policy” that could prove beneficial when we might later need some help dealing with government.
How do we reduce further the role of money and of insider dealing in Illinois politics?
One of my insider friends says any such effort is ridiculous: “It’s like kids trying to stop the flow of a creek. The water will ultimately find another route downstream.”
Others, however, came up with these suggestions, which seem reasonable to me:
• Prohibit former legislators, legislative staffers and executive branch officials from registering as paid lobbyists for two years after leaving state government. (By the way, this should be done in the federal government as well, where up to half of former congressmen stay in D.C. to become lobbyists. There is a weak prohibition now in D.C., easily evaded.) If people seek public office thinking they can use their experience to feather their nests later, democracy is badly tainted.
• Prohibit campaign fundraisers in Springfield for the period of one week preceding the start of a legislative session and until adjournment.
• Prohibit direct campaign contributions by corporations, businesses and unions, as the federal government does.
• Prohibit lawmakers and their campaign committees from soliciting campaign contributions during legislative session periods, to eliminate any appearances of possible “dealing.”
We’re all “lobbyists,” and there’s nothing improper about it. It’s the increasing amounts of money sloshing around, creating temptation, that needs to be regulated somehow.
Jim Nowlan is a retired professor, former state legislator and senior aide to three unindicted governors. He is president of Stark County Communications, a member of the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.