Lobby reform makes history U.S. lawmakers could learn from Md.'s experience


IN THE GOOD old days, legislators in Annapolis would occasionally troll for a lunch or dinner "sponsor."

A sponsor was a lobbyist eager to keep lawmakers fat, happy and compliant. At one point, a lobbyist would leave his credit card for use even if he couldn't make it to the table himself.

In the less good days of lobbying reform, trolling has been limited by the success of those who think lawmakers should buy their own lunches. The state provides a per diem meal allowance, after all.

Lobbying sponsors are still available, to be sure, but if they spend more than $15 for lunch the legislator's name has to be reported on the lobbyist's disclosure form.

Disclosure may be a tonic for democracy, but it can gag the lawmaker: He or she hopes to avoid the suggestion that anyone can buy or influence a vote. Next to passing a avorable bill, lobbyists want to avoid embarrassing a senator or delegate, so they are left in a quandary.

A quandary in this case comes down to a question: How can we stay under the limits? More directly: How can we beat the law?

In recent days, lobbyists have asked state ethics authorities if four or five of them could take a legislator to lunch and pro-rate the expense. If the lunch costs under $60 -- still possible even in Annapolis -- five lobbyists would pay less than $15 each and the lawmaker's name could stay off the report.

All of which suggests that lawmakers, lobbyists and members of Common Cause/Maryland could hire out as consultants to their counterparts in Washington where, last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to force similar disclosure requirements on the lobbying corps there.

By a unanimous vote, the House ruled that lobbyists must file a list of the companies they represent. At the same time, the House banned most lobbyists' gifts. In the House bill, items costing less than $15 would still be permissible, to allow the odd coffee cup or T-shirt. A Senate version would allow a $25 remembrance from lobbyist to lawmaker.

After so many years of killing similar restrictions, last Wednesday's House vote was virtually historic.

"We have to give credit to the freshmen sponsors of these bills," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "They did not want to go home and say 'We just couldn't change the way business is done in Washington.' In a sense, though, it's appalling we haven't had these requirements before."

Useful lessons

Maryland, again, has plenty of experience with attempts to control the use of money -- from campaign contributions to golf in the Bahamas. The experience might temper the reformers' euphoria in Washington and could be instructive for those who want the reform to work as intended.

So-called post-Watergate reforms in Maryland required lobbyists to register the names of their clients with the state Ethics Commission. In short order, the lobby list became a fund-raising tool. The list has been used by legislators who want to sell fund-raising tickets: If your name was on the list, you or your employer might well get an envelope full of $15 to $250 "Re-Elect Smith" tickets. You'd be expected to "move" them: Buy or peddle to others.

Similarly, disclosure of lobbyist expenses became advertising for the top earners in the lobbying corps. Newspapers published the large sums these advocates earned during a legislative sessions, ranking and labeling them as if there were a race of some sort. A silent marketing device was born for lobbyists trolling for clients: Representatives with many clients and big expenditures for receptions and lunches might well be the representative of choice for a new company.

Notwithstanding those unintended consequences, reforms have opened the process -- partially -- to the press and to citizens who wish to learn who is doing business with whom across the very narrow legislator-lobbyist divide.

In the area of disclosure, Congress is far ahead of Maryland: Congress provides it -- Maryland does not. Contributions to federal campaigns must be reported to the Federal Election Commission, which, in turn, logs into computers the contributors' names, addresses and occupations -- where the interested citizen may see who is paying for Senator Brown's bumper stickers and his TV commercials.

In Maryland, the records are not computerized. Though the legislature has limited the amount an individual can contribute, there is no effective enforcement because contributions can be given to hundreds of candidates and candidate slates -- with no ready means of determining the total.

Parts of the contribution puzzle, moreover, are filed in three separate state offices: the Ethics Commission, the State Administrative Board of Election Laws and the Secretary of State. These reports need consolidation and computerization before anyone can say Maryland has disclosure.

The legal defense loophole

And Ms. Povich wants contributions to a politician's legal defense fund included in the law. The urgency of filling this loophole has been demonstrated recently in Maryland and in Washington.

When the 1992 election of Gov. Parris N. Glendening was challenged in court, a fund was established to help pay his legal bills -- and, of course, business interests eagerly stepped forward. Mr. Glendening refused at first to disclose who his benefactors were, though it would appear the public had a legitimate interest in knowing who would give relatively large sums of money to a sitting governor. Mr. Glendening later thought better of his decision and released the contributors' names.

A similar issue arose last January in Washington. President Clinton urged lobbying reform during his State of the Union address: "The American people look at their nation's capital," he said, "and they see a city where the well-connected and the well-protected milk the system and the interests of ordinary citizens are too often left out."

At the same time, however, his opponents reminded us that the president was accepting contributions from lobbyists to help with his legal bills arising from a sexual harassment suit. He decided later not to accept lobbyists' help.

Mr. Clinton's vulnerability here is matched, though, by his chief antagonist on Capital Hill, Newt Gingrich. The House speaker faces many charges of questionable fund raising.

Reformers would be quick to agree that their targets reside in both major parties. Thus did reform find its best supporters among the new members of Congress elected during the watershed elections of 1994. As with the growing consensus on the need for a balanced budget, the chorus of support for lobbying reform has another political dimension, increasingly important as the presidential election year approaches: lobbying and campaign finance refrom are favorite issues of Ross Perot and his independent "United We Stand America."

"The size of the vote Perot got in the last election," Ms. Povich says, "was a wake-up call to the two-party system."

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for the Sun

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