Maryland's cadre of highly skilled lobbyists has become a third legislative house, an unofficial branch of state government run by corporate gunslingers who offer cradle-to-grave political services to lawmakers.
Lobbyists help to elect the men and women who vote on their clients' interests. They write legislation, prepare testimony and serve on unofficial committees formed by General Assembly leaders at moments of crisis to forge consensus.
They facilitate all of that with a multitude of favors and legislative comforts: lavish receptions, expensive tickets to sporting events, ice cream socials and, most valuable of all, expert information.
Their activities provoke widely disparate judgments: Lobbyists represent a boon to the public welfare and without them sound lawmaking would be impossible -- or they are a threat to the democratic process and to the Assembly's integrity.
There is no question that the financial stakes for competing interests before the annual 90-day Assembly grow every year. In recent decades lobbyists' influence in Annapolis has soared, along with the willingness of big corporations to pay handsome fees to employ a full-time presence in the State House. Witness these trends:
Over the past 20 years, the number of registered lobbyists in Annapolis has grown from fewer than 200 to 569.
In the past 10 years, the number of corporations and other interests employing lobbyists has more than doubled, from 744 to 1,927.
In that same period, lobbying fees and money spent to lubricate the social and legislative machinery during the Assembly's sessions have mushroomed from about $7.5 million to more than $21 million -- amounting to $111,000 for each of the Assembly's 188 members.
Many lobbyists do quite well financially. For example, Gary R. Alexander, a former legislator, reported fees of slightly more than $1 million last year as a lobbyist.
Leading members of Maryland's third house own impressive automobiles, and buy or rent historic buildings for their offices near the State House. Sometimes, a lobbyist's entertainment budget exceeds a legislator's pay -- a fact that does not go unnoticed by the lawmaker whose vote is being sought.
A lobbyist's approving nod to a wealthy client can send gushers of money into compliant lawmakers' campaign treasuries.
Former House speaker and now Democratic U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who calls lobbyists "absolutely essential in a democracy," says their presence as a body has not been adequately scrutinized. Reviews of ethics and campaign contributions -- there have been many in recent years -- have been directed primarily at what legislators can and can't do.
The urgency of addressing the lobbyist presence arises this year for several reasons.
One of the most well-known lobbyists, Bruce C. Bereano, will ply his trade from a halfway house, having been convicted of mail fraud in a case arising from his advocacy for a lottery computer company.
Lobbying partners John R. Stierhoff and Gerard E. Evans also raised questions recently, when it was reported they steered a $9,000 real estate commission to Democratic Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore last fall. The matter is likely to be examined by the legislature's ethics committee.
"There are lobbyists and legislators who have mistaken their roles," Stierhoff said during an interview before news of the real-estate transaction became known. "There are lines that are very easy to go over in this business."
While lobbyists have worked hard at pushing those boundaries, legislators also are culpable. Assemblies have been moved to reform the system by lobbyists who have found themselves squirming under pressure from legislators to help with fund raising or to serve as a "sponsor" -- someone to buy dinner.
Through it all, the image of the lobbyists -- hardly lofty to begin with -- has fallen further in the public's estimation.
Stierhoff, formerly an aide to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and one of the more successful Annapolis lobbyists, sums up the dual reality this way: "We're both a vilified and accepted part of the landscape in Annapolis."
Or as lobbyist Ellen Valentino recently told a group of newly elected legislators' wives: "Sometimes when I read about lobbyists, I think, 'My God, I ate my first-born child.' "
It's an undeserved rap, according to Rutgers University professor Alan Rosenthal, who says lobbyists make a vital contribution to the development of public policy.
The system works well, he says, because the good lobbyist knows he must find acceptable compromise between the needs of his client and the political needs of legislators.
"Without credibility and trust in the dealings among individuals, the process of lobbying would not work," says Rosenthal, who has written a book called "The Third House," which chronicles lobbying practices in a half-dozen states.
Maryland legislators often come to trust lobbyists as friends, advisers, role models and experts.
"Lobbying is not the dirty word to me it is to others," says Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, chairman of the Finance Committee, who believes he may be the most thoroughly lobbied member of the Assembly.
"These people are being paid to know the issues," he says. "They're the experts. I can't get through an electric utility deregulation bill [such as the one before the Assembly this year] without the expertise of the BGE lobbyist."
Many of the current lobbyists and many legislators say the volume and complexity of issues before the Assembly each year virtually demand a lobbyist for any piece of important legislation.
The number of businesses in search of representation climbs each year, but the lobbyists' hunger for clients may be outpacing that growth.
Reports abound of competitive poaching of clients. Knowledge of the process and of politics district by district -- and of human nature -- can take a workaholic lawyer to the pinnacle of a profession that has become, for some, a brutally competitive affair.
Recently, many legislators, including former House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and Laurence Levitan, former Senate Budget and Taxation Committee chairman, have left the Assembly to become lobbyists. Sometimes, legislative experience makes them effective advocates.
But, says lobbyist Evans, the transition is not always an easy one. "It's tough," he says, "for the kissee to become the kisser." The strategies for passing or killing a bill may be transferable, but being at the beck and call of legislators may represent a steep learning curve.
Many are willing to attempt the climb, adopting strategies for clients ranging from corporations to teachers unions, county governments, trade associations, environmental groups, churches, community groups, police and fire unions -- even tattoo parlors and massage therapists.
Many lobbyists remain sole practitioners, but others have taken on female and African-American partners so they can more effectively address those constituencies in the legislature. Their tactics have grown more sophisticated as well, taking full advantage of e-mail, TV ads and other forms of grass-roots advocacy -- all designed to influence legislators' votes.
The stereotype of lobbyists as raunchy influence-peddlers obscures the roles they play, both good and bad. Few still smoke cigars or wear derbies. Recent laws have curtailed the wining and dining of legislators.
But they nonetheless deeply influence, if not distort, the process. Many observers note that the outcome of legislation in Annapolis often seems to depend not on the merits of the bill but on lobbyists' friends in high places.
When Evans was hired after last year's session by BGE, a holding company bill that the utility had been unable to get through the Senate suddenly headed for passage. Many factors were at work, but the Annapolis lobbying corps and many legislators whispered that Evans' close association with Miller gave the bill the sponsorship it needed.
Lobbyists are avoided by some in the Assembly, particularly newly elected lawmakers -- lest voters think they have fallen under the spell of big money.
Laws already on the books -- and about to be tightened -- generally discourage lobbyists from entertaining individual legislators. But lobbyists now attempt to choreograph the dance of legislation by entertaining entire committees -- and in some cases the entire Assembly.
Some examples: Alexander gave tickets to the Washington Capitals hockey playoffs to Democratic Del. Peter Franchot, a $300 value, and $125 worth of tickets to Democratic Prince George's County Sens. Arthur Dorman and Ulysses Currie, according to Alexander's lobbying reports. Gifts of this sort would be banned under legislation pending in the Assembly this year.
Alexander, a former Democratic delegate from Prince George's County, also held a $6,100 "ice cream social" for weary senators and delegates at the end of last year's legislative session. More than 40 other such receptions were held for the body over the course of the 1998 meeting.
For the Preakness Stakes last May, a full quarter of the legislature -- and dozens of their guests -- took advantage of free tickets and a catered spread, courtesy of Joseph A. De Francis, principal owner of the state's two main thoroughbred tracks and someone with millions of dollars at stake in Annapolis. In all, lawmakers and their guests received $17,000 worth of freebies at the Preakness and at a party the night before, according to the tracks' disclosure forms.
No one imagines that a scoop of fudge ripple will result in favorable votes. Not directly. But in such ways, lobbyists try to make the legislators comfortable, amenable to their arguments, accessible -- close friends if possible.
This year, Bereano gave all 188 members of the Assembly hand-carved wooden desk ornaments with a replica of the State House, a lawmaker's quill and the word "LEGISLATOR" nicely painted. Crafted by a carver in House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.'s district, the key characteristic was its price of $14 -- a dollar below the $15 limit on gifts a legislator can accept without having it reported publicly.
At the core of the problems posed by lobbyists today is their appetite for clients.
"What we're seeing is this major distortion in outcomes, so that one lobbyist can be seen as a winner or a loser," said a former legislator who requested anonymity. "They're creating track records that can be sold to clients."
Win or lose, lobbyists with special knowledge -- and most of them can argue the most obscure nuances of issues they're working -- are indispensable players in the outcome of important bills.
A recent, prominent example: As the session neared an end last year, the complex issue of deregulating the electric utility industry smoldered behind the scenes.
Senate President Miller was eager to have the Assembly move ahead on deregulation. Other legislators were hesitant, largely because there were significant big-dollar issues to be hashed out among several interest groups, all of whom were represented by well-paid lobbyists.
Lobbyists involved in the issue -- ranging from public utilities to major industries who use large amounts of electricity -- took the initiative, meeting once or twice a week to try to reach consensus.
Key lawmakers warned the issue was dead unless the lobbyists could iron out some basic differences and avoid a bloody battle inside the Assembly fueled by the special interests. The lobbyists' group came to constitute what amounted to an unofficial Assembly committee.
"None of us had a vote in the room but legislators were telling us to get together and work it out," said Carolyn T. Burridge, a lobbyist who took part in the discussions on behalf of heavy industrial users of electricity. "We couldn't, but we got close."
So entrenched are lobbyists these days that no one even thinks to hide their participation in the legislative process.
Lobbyist "committees" are not restricted to the Assembly's crises or waning hours. Senator Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, routinely brings a half-dozen or more lobbyists into his office to hash out complicated issues -- private meetings outside of public view.
While an unwritten rule usually prohibits lobbyists from sitting in while legislative committees vote on bills, Bromwell's finance panel routinely encourages lobbyists to attend and speak up as it works on legislation.
"I let them say their position," Bromwell says. "They're advising us: 'If you do this or that, here's what happens in the industry.' "
Bromwell says hearing from all sides helps the committee avoid passing legislation that would work poorly, embarrass the Assembly and lead to more lawmaking later. "Sometimes I side with the docs, sometimes I lean with the hospitals or the insurance companies," he says.
Lobbyists applaud the policy, saying they at least get to make their point on bills and amendments at that crucial juncture. "You know you're going to get the last word on that amendment that somebody whipped out of their briefcase at the last minute," says J. William Pitcher, a prominent lobbyist with 22 years in the State House wars.
Although lobbyists can't technically introduce legislation to be considered by the General Assembly, it's sometimes hard to tell. In many cases, they prepare bills at the request of a lawmaker or they prepare a bill and find a sponsor.
"We probably will draft a dozen bills this session," Pitcher says. "We will do a tremendous amount of the research and drafting."
If lobbyists leave the bill-drafting to legislators and their staffs, he says, "you lose control of the wording."
Once a bill comes up for a hearing before a legislative committee, some lobbyists go so far as to draft testimony for the sponsoring legislator to present. The benefit is mutual: The lobbyists' views are expressed and legislators appear to know what they're talking about.
Lobbyists also work with lawmakers to develop strategies for passing or amending bills -- and for reviving seemingly dead ones.
Stierhoff, who knows the rules of the legislature as well as anybody from his long pre-lobbying career as a legislative staffer, often advises lawmakers on parliamentary strategy.
"You'd be surprised how many legislators call people like myself for advice" on rules, he says. Because of their close relationship with Senator Miller, Stierhoff and Evans are sometimes seen by political observers as examples of unhealthy coziness between a legislator and a lobbyist.
Rosenthal, the Rutgers professor, who knows the Maryland Assembly and its leading lobbyists and legislators, thinks the relationship between Stierhoff and Miller is a productive one. But he agrees that problems can arise for lobbyists if they get more access to decision makers than others -- particularly if that is related to campaign contributions.
Miller says he has never steered a corporate interest toward any particular lobbyist, although he says he has offered the names of a handful when asked.
Evans, who has heard the grumbling about his relationship with Miller, shrugs it off.
"It's a yoke I've had to carry," he says. "It's not true [that Miller helps him]. If anything, I have to try hard to protect him. I value our friendship more than the job."
And, Evans notes, even having ties to the president of the state Senate is not enough to guarantee victory. The top tier of lobbyists has access to all the Assembly's power players, he says. "To get the ball over the goal line," he says, "you have to have everyone."
Over the past four decades, much has changed in the quality of Annapolis legislators and in the professionalism of lobbyists, says James J. Doyle Jr., the dean and still one of the most respected of the Assembly's practitioners.
When Doyle's career began, Maryland's business establishment could often work out its governmental problems at country clubs and others private venues.
But over the years, legislators have found it to their political advantage to attack big business, Doyle said. "They could grandstand and win big political victories," Doyle recalls. "For a time, companies tried to carry on the way they had, but failed. They began to look for people who could learn the system."
By the 1980s, Doyle says, others saw "what a good thing I had," and the number of lobbyists increased dramatically.
In today's cut-throat climate, he says, lobbyists have to watch their backs lest their clients be stolen by colleagues. Recently, he says, one of his long-standing employers told him of a letter from a competitor who just wanted to introduce himself. "Jim's getting old," the letter said. "You should protect yourself."
That practice -- and others more vicious -- are not uncommon. Agencies that police lobbyists' registrations, for example, are called by competitors to investigate alleged infractions. If lobbyists sin -- and if that sin is published -- clients can expect to get copies of the damning article in unmarked envelopes.
Doyle, too, says the idea that lobbyists need good relationships with only a few legislators is wrong.
"People don't get themselves tattooed in that way," he says. "Some lobbyists may claim that they have that sort of relationship, but these political guys are survivors in the greatest game of political chairs ever devised. They know how to say no.
"I always couch my client's interest in terms of a legislator's constituents' best interests. If I'm just arguing for American Express, I'll get killed and I should."
Pub Date: 1/24/99