Ethics, Lobbyists and Rules! Oh, My!

In The Hunt for Red October, following his briefing on Soviet sub Captain Marko Ramius, CIA Analyst Jack Ryan learned the perfect definition of a politician from Jeffrey Pelt, the President’s National Security Adviser. In the same conversation Ryan also learned he was the expendable asset being sent to contact and contain the possibly defecting Captain.

I’m a politician which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies I’m stealing their lollipops. But it also means I keep my options open.

Last year, Georgia passed new ethics legislation. But with the State Ethics Commission of Georgia lacking funding and human resources, the law is a dog that won’t hunt. Limited enforcement encourages bad behavior, or in the case of our legislature, business as usual.

Last week the AJC treated us with a peek inside the swirling special interest storm created by lobbyists and others currying favor with legislators.

A partnership of oilmen, car dealers and liquor merchants spent nearly $2,000 so far this year stocking a private bar for state lawmakers in a downtown condominium.

But that is just the beginning. In just the past two weeks, lobbyists have spent more than $80,000 — $340 per member of the General Assembly — literally wining and dining lawmakers, their spouses and staff members.

Then there’s “that condo.”

A traditional stop on this smorgasbord of special interest largess is a suite on the 12th floor of The Landmark, a Piedmont Avenue condominium building, as a refuge for lawmakers to drop in and unwind. Since the start of the legislative session last month, the Georgia Oilmen’s Association, the Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association and the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association have spent $1,903 stocking the suite.

[…] The oil lobby was there too, spending about $170 on supplies for the suite during the [ice] storm, according to records.

While some may see the value in allowing lawmakers a space to casually discuss events of the day, the fact that it is fully funded by lobbyists does not sit well with ethics reformers.

“If people think those things do not influence at least some legislators, then they’re being naïve,” said Julianne Thompson of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots.

“I guess sometimes I don’t think we think about it,” [Rep. Gerald] Greene admitted. “We are so much about doing what we have to do every day that sometimes we don’t think about how other people see it.”

Indeed. As we have discussed perceptions previously, the belief that all politicians are on the take is fueled by their very own behavior. If they want Georgians to believe they are following ethics guidelines that are now state law, we need to see evidence.

It takes some digging, but there will many of us watching the lobbyist expenditures on those legislators connected with the spiking of the lately departed bill of which we no longer speak. While the true nature of the bill (allowing local referendums on sales) was twisted by a wide variety of opponents, the real story was the lack of, shall we say, glandular fortitude exhibited by those same legislators shepherding the bill to its annual grave. Isn’t it their job to stand up to such pressure? If you don’t have the stomach for political blood sport, then go home.

If I didn’t know better, I’d expect Monday’s filings to include one changing the State Bird from the Brown Thrasher to the Big Chicken.

As North Georgia attorney McCracken Poston noted in the AJC article, “Basically these lobbyists have created a sense of indebtedness.” Just wondering, how much of the bill’s death can be contributed to this misdirected sense of obligation? Shouldn’t the only obligation legislators feel be to their constituents?

“Whether those gifts wield power over the decisions rendered on our behalf or not, the appearance of impropriety results in distrust,” said Angela Speir Phelps of Georgia Watch, a consumer watchdog group.

Georgians are tired of the “politics as usual” club when the Legislature rolls into town. Lawmaking is serious business, not a Mardi Gras party. While these lobbyists line the pockets of politicians, keeping all their options open like the fictional Jeffrey Pelt, many Georgians are struggling just to get by. The government transparency term has been overused lately, but in reality, we all want to know more about our government’s operations, not less.

The state budget alone should be enough to put the fear of third world nation status into all their hearts.

If those leaders in Georgia government want us to believe they are really making an effort in across the board ethics reform, they need to show us something to bolster our belief. Anything. Hello? Is anyone listening in the Gold Dome?

59 comments

  1. B Balz says:

    What people fail to realize is that at some point in the process, advocacy stops and lawmaking begins. In my opinion, Legislators rarely finalize their decision based on free drinks, or even an expensive trip. At some point the advocacy is simply shut off, and the process unfolds.

    I really wonder if they folks that fan the ethics imbroglio actually know that most lawmaking relies on expert testimony, views from advocacy groups (most are extremely straightforward), and MOST importantly, constituent feedback.

    Bad press is a power lobbyist that needs no badge.

    • gopgal says:

      You are naive to think that any ordinary citizen can have substantial sway over the deep pockets and good ol’ boy network of lobbyists and legislators down at the at the state capital. It’s so incestuous, and there a so many inducements, that we don’t stand a chance.

      Take last year’s Senate Bill 31 which definitely benefits GA Power and not GA consumers.

      “Georgia Power lobbyists Steve Allen and Scott Draper were among the most generous Georgia lobbyists in 2009. Together the pair doled out more than $14,000 in meals, sports tickets and other freebies to legislators, according to disclosure reports.

      The utility already has friends in high places. Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff, Ed Holcombe, had a 39-year career at Georgia Power where he worked as the company’s chief lobbyist.”

      See full article here: http://bit.ly/fMaahn

      • B Balz says:

        gopal, you are not hearing my point. WE ALL have one voice, some tell a story so compelling that they alone can change things. Most situations are not like that. Thus, coalitions form, people form advocacy organizations, and ONE voice grows to MANY.

        ONE person, without taking too much time, through the web can become involved, at a legislatively meaningful manner, with virtually any well-run advocacy group. To try to tell me otherwise, negates the millions of hours people spend working to make things better.

        GA Power is so deeply rooted in the success of our State that to think they cannot accomplish things, most of cannot, is ludicrous. You say, “GA Power” like they are the enemy. Maybe they succeeded in shackling us with a rate increase. Or, maybe when and if the new plant is built, somebody will tell us we saved a bundle.

        Buy their stock.

    • Sally says:

      BBAlz (what an odd name, but whatever), you apparently do not understand the difference in the access that these lobbyists have with the legislators to make their pitches. It’s not the money that is spent on them that scares me so much as the time a lobbyist gets to become the confidante of the legislator. Once legislators open-up to the lobbyists their own personal issues and private matters, the lobbyists become attached to them, even after they break.

      Even if the lobbyist is not in the room at the time of “lawmaking”, the influence of the lobbyist by way of the conversations the lobbyist has had with a legislator carries on in their head.

      You try (if you are an average citizen) to get more face time than 10 minutes with a legislator and see if you can convince them of your position that is directly opposite the lobbyist’s. It is rare that it can be done.

      • B Balz says:

        Long story on the screen name….Are you new here or newly named Sally?
        Have you ever been to the Capitol to advocate a position? It sounds as if you may have some knowledge based on what you heard, not so much what you saw.

        Your point is correct, “…much as the time a lobbyist gets to become the confidante of the legislator. Once legislators open-up to the lobbyists their own personal issues and private matters, the lobbyists become attached to them, even after they break. …”

        The whole of it is called ‘relationship building’ and it is exactly the friendships you describe that are able to get things done. It comes down to trust and integrity, does a lawmaker trust his Staff to have the excruciatingly technical details of policy correct? Who gave them the facts? The advocate helped. Does the lawmaker vote based on a phone call from a lobbyist? Maybe, but I doubt that is a good long term strategy.

        SB31 was one of the most heavily lobbied Bills in GA in a long time. I heard 70 plus lobbyists were involved. Did GA Power benefit from SB31 or does the taxpayer end up paying less for a nuclear plant by paying down interest up front? It’s awfully complicated, how would we know? My bill went up this year, and will continue to grow….

        You make good, valid points. I maintain that advocacy goes just so far, at some point the lawmaker, knows they are accountable to you, and hopefully makes a decision based on sound information.

        • Lady Thinker says:

          BB,

          You know you and I have been have been on the same side as well as arguing opposites on some issues. But I think I understand what you are trying to say here and I have to agree with your comments. Thanks for posting your insights here.

  2. PARpat says:

    The ethics situation is being stirred by the AJC and the bomb-throwers from the “ethics alliance”. The Sunday sales referendum got spiked by Christian conservatives who I don’t believe stock the suite. Sure lawmakers are influenced by lobbyists and by the voters in their district. Time to find another crusade.

    • A Fly on the Wall says:

      Wrong. Who is also against Sunday Sales? Liquor store owners. Who was one of the suite sponsors listed in the AJC article? The Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association, which represents this group. Sometimes you have to do a better job of connecting the dots.

  3. saltycracker says:

    As we diminish the “entertainment” by lobbyist, the taxpayer funded “conferences” in five star resorts will rise in indirect proportion…..Take a look at the meetings attended by Educators.

    For politicans, the best environment for a professional exchange of information would be one where the personal relationships are diluted and that would be one with term limits.

    • B Balz says:

      Don’t get me wrong, access and influence by highly paid lobbyists make things happen. For example, one change in regulations can result in huge financial gain.(3M lobbied hard to make US law require street signs become reflective by a date certain. 3M makes reflective signage material.) Right now everyone is running around making their signs legal by US code!!!

      But in the end, reflective signs are useful, may save lives and lawmakers KNOW that voting for such a reg is not against the public interest. With the Sunday sales bill, one could effectively argue selling booze one more day adversely affects ‘public interest’. One would be off-base, as that is NOT why the right to vote was nixed. But that argument as cover, is out there.

      My initial point is that an average citizen advocate, with a compelling argument, has more access and credibility than a lobbyist in a $2,000 suit to their rep.

      • Sally says:

        I totally disagree with your assumption about the influence of the average citizen advocate. In fact, I know it to be flat-out false.

        Oh, and Sweetie? Anyone who would make that kind of statement must be a lobbyist themselves.

        • B Balz says:

          ~blushing~ Sally(!), personal feelings aside….

          Most anyone who’s ‘frum heah’ will know I am, in fact a vol advocate for a National illness support group. Got Me!

          There are instances that will support or deny the ability of the ‘citizen advocate’ to make a difference. I look at the cases where someone did make a difference, and humbly offer those instances as the G’dly beauty of our system. To believe otherwise assumes hopelessness, inability to change that which needs changing.

          I for one, will not concede that argument, ever.

      • Three Jack says:

        “My initial point is that an average citizen advocate, with a compelling argument, has more access and credibility than a lobbyist in a $2,000 suit to their rep.”

        come on bb. the lobbyist is at the capitol every day…most citizens are working or trying to find a job.

        instead of making ethics laws tougher, i think they should just eliminate any restrictions other than reporting of amounts used to influence legislators. it is up to voters to police their representatives so if an incumbent candidate has a habit of accepting outlandish gifts from lobbyists and his/her opponent makes it an issue, then voters can decide.

        • B Balz says:

          Actually, TJ, I spend a lot of time their, strategically, as a vol. Our organization has a paid staffer who spends more time there. Every citizen can find ONE day out of FORTY to join their advocacy of their choice which will have an Awareness Day.

          Being at the capitol every day is hardly a qualification for excellence, some would even agree seeing the same faces, repeatedly, is a hindrance. To believe that even a lone ‘citizen-advocate’ cannot right a wrong is not supported by fact.

          Your last paragraph describes our status quo. I agree, and as long as a lawmaker is relatively certain the lobbyist is doing the reporting, all is good. If the lobbyist doesn’t report, some say that leads to problems. I agree, and feel that not reporting will over time be a game of diminishing returns.

          • Sally says:

            “Every citizen can find ONE day out of FORTY to join their advocacy of their choice which will have an Awareness Day.”

            Between the Christians telling me when I should be able to buy alcohol and people like BBalz telling me I have the time to take-off from work, get down to the captitol, and make my “awareness” known, I think all of you know-it-alls should stop presuming you speak for us, or know anything about our lives enough to proscribe how things need to be done.

            You’re a “volunteer?” How nice. Honey, the rest of us have to work 8-12 hours per day to put food on the table and pay for child care.

            • B Balz says:

              Sally, we all make time for what is important.

              Are you robbing your employer by taking time to be argumentative with me, instead of educating yourself on how to make a positive difference?

              Simple Sally.

              • Sally says:

                lol. If you actually worked for a living, you would know that today is Presidents Day and a holiday for lots of businesses. So, I am not “robbing” anyone to take time out to argue with yyou. lol!

                But I do recall this old saying about arguing with a fool (or was it a pig?), and I will leave you to carry-on your efforst to run the world, bbalz.

            • bowersville says:

              BB’s same point. Introduce yourself to your elected representatives. Tell them your screen name on PP. Mine read this stuff.

              They also have email accounts and phone numbers. I have my representative’s cell phone numbers do you? I don’t over use either. But if I feel a strong urge, they’ll know what I think. Work a GOTV phone bank. Put out signs. I don’t ask for much, just to be heard and then give my confidence that they’ll make the right informed decision. Do I agree 100% with their decisions? I don’t even agree with my wife 100% of the time.

              • KD_fiscal conservative says:

                Exactly, and it is surprising how often legislators want to the opinion of their practical, sane constituents. No one wants to give their personal contact info to some radical “activist” that is out to get the “politician” on every little thing.

                These”grassroots” and anti-establishment people not make any sense sometimes. It is MUCH easier to work within the system, than to blast every legislator when they don’t agree with you, like some of these organizations are doing.

            • KD_fiscal conservative says:

              Sally, I’m not sure if you expect legislators to have ESP, but that only way for ANYONE to know your side of the issue is by advocating your position. So instead of complaining about it on a blog, CALL/EMAIL your legislator. You don’t have to go anywhere. Or schedule an appointment in your district. Sure some legislators are arrogant, and are unwilling to meet with or listen to continents, but most are not.

              Also, you smart aleck tone will guarantee NOT ONE, not just elected officials, will listen to so you may just want to con’t to do what you do, and forget about all this advocacy stuff.

              • Sally says:

                Sweetie, I expect my legisaltors to have commonsense and be able to properly represent me on the values they promised they would when they ran for office. Funny how people like you are willing to let them slide on all their “principles” once they get into office.

                • KD_fiscal conservative says:

                  “I expect my legisaltors to have commonsense and be able to properly represent me ”

                  “people like you are willing to let them slide on all their “principles”

                  Is it just me or are these statements completely contradictory?

                  I’m not going to argue with you, like I said, you keep doing what you do(what ever that is) b/c no one wants to listen to a smartass(can I say that on here…oh well)

          • Three Jack says:

            bb, actually instead of spending a day at the dome, i agree with bowersville that it is much more important to be in touch with your local reps through calls, emails, facebook and most importantly, at their public appearances in the district. but i still stand by my position that many legislators are influenced by the trips, gifts, dinners and condos with free booze. there is no way a working ‘citizen advocate’ can compete with the competent, full time lobbyist.

            • B Balz says:

              According to reps I have worked with and even contract lobbyists, constituents trump. Those that contribute to the rep and vote, trump more. Those that contribute, but don’t vote, get their point heard, no doubt, but there is a direct link to the contribution and the rep. And there is the potential for bad press.

              Good advocacy consists of all of these activities: spending time giving testimony, making a legislative visits, calls, emails, social media, even Peach Pundit, and most importantly, at their office in the district. Coalitions are critical.

              But you knew all that….

              • Three Jack says:

                bb, i think it has to do with the particular issue as well. a local citizen advocate will definitely have influence on a local issue but not so much on a statewide program like an agl pipeline, purchasing property (oakey woods), sunday sales, etc.

                and yes, i know all that.

                • B Balz says:

                  It’s an AHA! moment. Issues such as you mention, AGL, Oakey, Sunday Sales, are probably much less influenced by citizen advocates. Most folks have neither the inclination to care or access to hard facts to support a position.

                  That’s where the lobbying disclosures become problematic, as each of the issues mentioned involves big money and big work.

  4. CobbGOPer says:

    And of course now we have the revelation that Mr. Oxendine granted himself insurance licenses by fiat – er, waiver – and there is “nothing” Ralph Hudgens can do about it.

    Does anyone believe these guys are not all crooked? Ok, maybe a few, but unfortunately, they are the vast minority.

    Term limits. If there are any other potential GOP state delegates out there, we need to start the push now, and make this a party platform issue in May.

    • Howard Roark says:

      Ralph Hudgens said he would personally make sure that Oxendine fulfills all requirements in the future. There is no love between the two of them. Rumor in Atlanta is a couple of JO’s long time right hand men in the Ins. office have been let go.

      We are a nation of laws. If the law says Ox has the certification for a year then he does.

      I am no fan of the Ox. If he had been the GOP nominee for governor I would have not voted for him in the general.

  5. KD_fiscal conservative says:

    When the average voters reads the headline “Evil lobbyist corrupts impressionable legislator” time and time again, they are going to start looking at the elected officials in a(even more) negative light. As I said before, this does not look good for individual legislators or the party in power. So considering that, I ask do legislators really have to accept lobbyist kick-backs, especially free tickets and ?

    To my dismay, they stopped docs from getting anything(even those nifty pens and magnets) from drug co’s long ago b/c of what the public perceived to be a “moral hazard”. If legislators(democrats mainly) are so arrogant to think others, even highly trained professionals, can be so easily influenced, why should politicians be exempt from a similar bans. I think I know why…..

    On the other hand, anyone with a little bit or time and/or money can gain access to legislators. If you have a problem with other special interests have too much influence, get you know your own legislator, donate and help with their campaign, and you too can be a “lobbyist.” From my experience, legislators are more likely to listen to constituents and supporters who they know personally, than some paid lobbyist working on behalf of some out of district client anyway.

    • B Balz says:

      KD,

      Missed the headline ‘Evil lobbyist corrupts impressionable legislator’, but I get your point. Yet, perception is NOT reality otherwise the railroad tracks would meet in the distance. Your last sentence is spot-on.

      Breakfasts, drinks, advertising specialties, are legitimate and, in my opinion, harmless ways to engage a lawmaker into a discussion about one’s advocacy. Tickets, trips and the like must be disclosed; albeit in GA, by the lobbyist. A lawmaker faces being pilloried in the press for failure to do so, upon discovery (and it will be discovered).

      Bad press ought to be enough of a deterrent, in a system of honorable individuals. Ideally, the system is self-policing, but some are shameless.

      You are absolutely correct about

      • KD_fiscal conservative says:

        The actual headline read “Lobbyists supply special-interest feast for Georgia legislators” but the average reader sees ‘Evil lobbyist corrupts impressionable legislator’…sorry I was being condescending.

        I am looking at this from a public perception of GOP and future viability stand point. All I’m saying is they shouldn’t accept tickets/very expensive trips, and be very up front about the purpose of the meeting places; solely to prevent bad press, as you correctly point out, is a deterrent anyway. But with bad press could also come the lasting appearance of “corruption” so my point is the actions that lead to bad press should not be continued, with or without further legislation.

        • KD_fiscal conservative says:

          “Yet, perception is NOT reality ”

          Also agree with you on this, but in the game of politics, perception is more important than politics. It doesn’t matter how reasonable people like you and I think, what matters is that the “general public” thinks, so that positive “image” among voters must be protected.

          • B Balz says:

            Good points, about protecting public perception, most folks don’t realize how damaging bad press becomes around election time. In an ideal world, “…the actions that lead to bad press should not be continued, with or without further legislation…” right?

            In our world, human frailty abounds.

            • CommonCauseGA says:

              Public perception is critical to the functioning of the legislative process (which disillusioned voter wants to take the time to contact their reps?), but it is only the ugly cost part of the cost-benefit equation of lobbyist gifts. It is equally important to ask: what exactly is the benefit? Does alcohol help reps think more logically?
              If lobbyists get paid to provide information to legislators, let that be it.
              Let the logic and power of argument, policy, and perspective be the sole persuasion. Then your average citizen’s perspective stands nose-to-nose with lobbyists’ perspectives.

            • gopgal says:

              “most folks don’t realize how damaging bad press becomes around election time.”

              Yeah, like the Lewinsky – Clinton scandal — which destroyed Clinton right into a second term.

                • Lady Thinker says:

                  Yea, Clinton and John Edwards didn’t have relations with their mistresses only to rescind their statements when the evidence was too strong against them.

                  Jimmy Carter said he had lusted in his heart after a woman who was not his wife.

                  Clinton and Edwards got long term coverage, Carter got a yawn. If the person is likeable, people don’t care what he/she does.

                  • B Balz says:

                    Recall with Pres. Clinton a ‘witch hunt’ in search of a witch was underway (Whitewater) and it was fruitless. Ken Starr had announced his intent to join the Pepperdine Law School in 2/97.

                    Then, smelling a blue dress, he ‘flipflopped’ to pursue that angle.

                    So being ‘unliked’, as in Pres. and Mrs. Clinton, earned some attention as well.

  6. chefdavid says:

    Anyone catch the jab Cagle took at the leadership on the Sunday Sales bill?
    http://www.gwinnettdailypost.com/opinion/headlines/OUR_VIEW_Another_year_another_defeat_for_Sunday_sales_116549273.html
    “Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said the decision was up to the majority leader, but admitted that the way it was halted isn’t ideal.

    “This is a very delicate situation,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said. “When you ultimately allow the caucus to decide it, it doesn’t provide the sort of transparency in government that the citizens are really looking for.””

    • LoyaltyIsMyHonor says:

      I think in another article, he implied that the caucus essentially renders the Rules Chairman, and his Committee, irrelevant.

      • Harry says:

        I fail to see the problem in opening it up to the entire caucus. Seems more transparent and “democratic.” But tell me if I’m wrong.

        • LoyaltyIsMyHonor says:

          Um, you do realize that Caucus meetings are private and closed to the public right? And that Committee meetings are public?

          They essentially created a shadow Rules Committee.

  7. saltycracker says:

    BB’s attitude is what voluntary advocacy is about. Grass roots is the key to local politics particularly intraparty elections.

    Unfortunately as time in office goes on the “professionals” intoxicate the incumbent and positions are compromised by even the most well intended.

    The advocates voice would be better heard in a world with term limits.

    • B Balz says:

      One of the saddest moments in advocacy was when a now-former rep told me, “running for office to improve the greater good is a fool’s errand.” I say the key words are ‘now-former’.

      I heard an interesting take on term limits this weekend. What if we examined the length of term and then the limit? The issue is that the US changes basic policy every four years if the incumbent is not re-elected. What if Congressional terms were longer, but limited?

      • CobbGOPer says:

        I think the problem with too many of the national term-limits advocates is they push for limits that are too short, like six years or something (3 terms for reps, one term for a senator). I advocate 12 years (six terms for reps, two for senators). I think if you spend 12 years in Congress (or by extension, the General Assembly), that’s long enough, yeah? That way, you’ve got time to gain a bit of seniority and to push for your agenda. But short enough that you don’t become an entrenched shill for special interests. The lobbyists and special interests have to start over again with a new legislator, and convince them of the value of supporting their cause, as opposed to just throwing money at an incumbent.

        I reiterate my call to potential delegates to the state GOP convention: we need to make legislative term limits a priority in the party platform, and if successful, we then need to hold our legislative representatives’ feet to the fire.

        • saltycracker says:

          Just get term limits in the radar.
          I’d settle for 12 years as long as it involves a caveat of no pension.

  8. Dave Bearse says:

    B Balz:

    The problem with asserting that a constituent’s point of view can be as important as that of a lobbyist legislation must pass through committee, and if you’re legislator isn’t on that committee, you’re SOL.

    You’re no doubt are aware that GOP Senate caucus rules are that legislation can’t go to the floor unless it has the approval of a majority of the caucus. Makes it easy on lobbyists—they need only line up 19 GOP Senate votes to bottle up any legislation.

    More broadly, given there are 27 Senate Committees and at 11 people per Committee works out to 5-6 Committee assignments per person. That means you’re a nobody relative to a lobbyists 80% of the time.

    • B Balz says:

      Mr. Bearse,

      Good point, and agreed, one lobbyist per lawmaker won’t address a Committee decision, but here’s the deal: A good advocacy knows the Committee and finds the rep that can be reached.

      I just did this, this Session. Committees are, as you know, are formed and announced, you pick the rep based on their assignment. No matter how one chooses to believe, I subscribe to the view that “….a constituent’s point of view can be MORE important as that of a lobbyist…” but is issue sensitive.

      That is the key. As Three Jack pointed out, certain issues simply don’t have a grassroots appeal.

      PS I truly look forward to meeting you one day!

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