Big Money, 'Perceptions' and Reform


Annapolis -- A number of legislators have suggested recently that campaign finance reform legislation must pass this year in Maryland to cope with a "perception" that big money is the only voice the General Assembly hears.

At hearings in both the Senate and House of Delegates, witnesses who favor the bill have said they know of no real problem -- only the perception of a relationship in which votes depend on campaign contributions.

If perception could be outlawed, this argument suggests, there would be no problem.

Adherents of that viewpoint were dealt a blow last week, however, by James J. Doyle Jr., the lawyer from Baltimore who has lobbied here for a decades.

Over the course of his service here, he said, "money has really taken on a role in theis process that's well beyond the role money should play."

Mr. Doyle said that the average voter may well be discouraged to see that a half million dollars or more can be raised in a single evening of cocktail-sipping and canape-tasting at some swank hotel.

One of this year's reform bill sponsors, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, collected $10,000 last year -- a breakfast warm-up for the actual fund-raiser that would come later.

Stories about such events indicate to the average guy, Mr. Doyle said, "a world to which he doesn't belong and will never belong."

The big check for Senator Miller came from the Maryland doctors represented by lobbyist Gerard E. Evans. As a matter of routine, teams of lobbyists are employed to raise money for legislators they support. The more important the legislator, the more lobbyists he or she can put on his team.

Many legislators use the lobbyist registration list as a fund-raising tool. In the beginning, the list was a reform -- a place for the lobbyist to register officially and to report the names of his clients. Over time, registration created a mailing list for the sale of fund-raiser tickets -- some of which cost $250 each. In some cases, the lobbyist is informed of a quota -- a table of ten, for example -- and encouraged to meet it.

Lobbyist Ira A. Cooke suggested last week that if the assembly really wants reform in fund-raising, it might consider outlawing the practice of soliciting ticket sales using the lobby list. The suggestion drew no comment from the Senate Committee on Economic and Environmental Affairs.

Mr. Miller's bills would remove Mr. Evans and other lobbyists from the fund-raising process -- up to and perhaps including his ability to advise clients on where to invest their political campaign contributions. Just where the line of demarcation should be is one of the many gray and complicated matters the assembly is grappling with.

Last year, Mr. Evans ran the doctors' political action committee and Mr. Miller's fundraising committee. Under the pending bills, a lobbyist would not be able to do either.

It is here that perception and reality merge. Voters such as Joanne Lawler, a Baltimore resident who testified on the reform bills last week, said the big money overtones made her cynical and reluctant to make contributions of her own.

"Why should I give you $30 when you're getting $2,000 from a political action committee?" she asked. How could her comparatively paltry sum of money compete? Mr. Doyle had said earlier he thinks the same question is beginning to reduce participation in the wider democratic process and may account for falling voter turnout.

All of these arguments -- few of them new -- appear to be driving the reform bills toward passage this year. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, also backs the measures -- after several years of killing them in the House Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law.

Mr. Mitchell is a devotee of the term "revision," rejecting reform and hanging his advocacy on the perception hook. Whatever his approach, his support is regarded as helpful for the bills' prospects.

Evidence mounts, meanwhile, that a concerned and angry public represented by Joanne Lawler -- and those who voted many incumbents out last November -- is the real motivator here.

Last week, Delegate Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, submitted a petition from 71 House members -- enough to pass a bill -- suggesting that political action committees be limited to contributions of no more than $4,000 during any four year election cycle. The Miller-Mitchell proposal calls for a limit of $8,000 -- and business groups argue that the limit should be $10,000.

"In the 1990 election cycle," Mr. Frosh observed, "the average total expenditure for a winning General Assembly race was $46,841. A contribution of $8,000 would have amounted to more than 17 percent of the average candidate's total expenditures. We believe the influence of PACs will be far too great in campaigns of individual legislators if PACs continue to be permitted to contribute as much as $8,000."

The problem of lobbyists with money to spend for passage -- more often for the defeat -- of legislation is a complicated one, involving all sorts of factors including the well-settled mores of the assembly and its many players.

Senator Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County, said last week he wondered if the legislature ought not to be careful about limiting a lobbyist's ability to wine and dine since a good deal of important conversation goes on over dinner or lunch -- often the only time a legislator has to hear an argument.

Mr. Collins spoke as if he were somehow obliged to allow the lobbyist to buy him lunch or dinner.

"You can have dinner with them," suggested Senate President Miller who stayed in the committee room to hear the debate on his bill, "but you don't have to accept their largess."

What to accept and not to accept?

Freshman Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican, says he would like to "appear as independent as possible" in his dealings with lobbyists here.

During a hearing on several bills designed to reduce the influence of lobbyists, Mr. McCabe said he has resolved to accept nothing from those who represent business and industry in the halls of the government.

Mr. McCabe told his colleagues on the Senate Committee on Economic and Environmental Affairs that he's finding that objective a bit "awkward."

"I say 'Thank you for your generosity but I'd prefer not to accept your gift,' " he tells his benefactors.

Hoping not to offend, he tries to return the little keepsakes and remembrances that fall with some regularity upon his desk. Twenty or more different items now stand on his office credenza: pens, books, notebook binders, tote bags and the like.

"There is nothing of value usually, and people have nothing untoward in mind. They just want to leave their name with you. I just don't think it's necessary. In general, I just think we should rethink the way we approach these things," he said.

This year's reform bills would attempt to stop a lobbyist from evading the $25 limit on gift-giving. This has been done in the past when the actual cost of tickets to sporting events -- sometimes costing more than the limit -- have been buried in the records by attributing the cost to more than one client. Much more detailed reporting would be demanded by the proposed bills.

But even the little things, though, add up to the big things in time -- a vote on an important issue cast for a lobbyist who has become a friend or even a trusted adviser.

In the world of politics, free meals and tickets to sporting events are part of the atmosphere -- too much a part, according to backers of the reform bills. Though they have a meal allowance, senators and delegates can snag a fancy dinner or lunch any time they want to. The name of the game, someone once said, was learning how to let the lobbyists pick up the tabs and vote against them anyway.

It is not an easy skill to learn -- and probably goes against the grain of common politeness, a fact some lobbyists know only too well. The old political saying may be a useful form of self-delusion. Those who think influence flies on the wings of campaign contributions are only partly correct. Money is as important as it is perceived to be. But lobbyists who are attentive to the personal and professional needs of legislators cannot be underestimated.

With the gift given and accepted, no moral or ethical barrier has been breached. Usually, no law has been broken. The relationship established by an exchange of presents and notes bespeaks a level of communication that goes beyond mere access -- the thing allegedly purchased by the campaign contributions.

Which leads to this question: How can anyone imagine the reform effort of 1991 will help? The kinds of situations a law on campaign financing seeks to address are infinite -- and the ability of a skillful lobbyist or legislator to circumvent them may be equally unlimited. There are those who say only public financing would end the finagling.

"As long as private money is influencing public policy," says Delegate James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, "you're going to have a problem."

One thing the bills do, Mr. Rosapepe says, is "make vice harder and virtue easier." Although one might want to rely on an individual's personal view of what is acceptable, in practice the decision may be harder to make -- unless the laws are crystal clear. If something is not clearly unconstitutional, illegal or indictable, it will likely be done. So, the tighter the laws, the

better the system.

No one familiar with how much fund-raising has changed since the era of a crab feast as the only fund-raising event of an election believes that is true.

In the end, Mr. Rosapepe finds himself on both sides of the reality-perception axis.

"The involvement of lobbyists in fund-raising is inherently a problem. When people say only about five percent are involved, that is a quantitative not a qualitative distinction," he said.

At the same time, he says, "I think politics over the last ten years has become progressively cleaner. The environment has, too, It's just that we're more sensitive -- to these issues -- and properly so than we used to be."

Real sensitivity in this area may translate into political survival four years from now -- when the voters may well take another close look at the performance of incumbents.

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