There is no veneer to Olympia, which makes it a curiously authentic, what-you-see town.
True to their name, lobbyists loiter in the veined-marble halls of the Legislative Building and can be identified by their plastic name tags and presumptuous title, “The Third House.” They’re often physical extensions of their interests. Business flaks don their Rotary pins. Lentil promoters look like lentil farmers. The do-gooders are earnest and the bad guys are confident. It’s the consummate democratic stew.
The challenge of a part-time legislature and, at least in theory, citizen representatives, is the information vacuum. There is professional staff, but a lot of legislation is literally written by special interests. The hope-over-experience wish is that “special” aligns with the public interest.
Because Olympia is a small community, everyone knows everyone else. It can be as productive as it is incestuous. Herein lies the challenge with lawmakers accepting free grub and drinks from those paid to influence them.
KUOW’s Austin Jenkins and The Associated Press report that in the first four months of 2013, legislators accepted $65,000 in free meals from the state’s top 50 lobbyists. The mitigate-influence rule says accepting free chow must be “infrequent.” Does that mean once a month? Once a day? (note: the latter is not a good answer.)
State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and chair of the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, was the biggest offender, accepting $2000 in meals and attending 62 lobby dinners.
In explaining himself to Jenkins, Ericksen sounds like a Northwest version of Louisiana’s late, great Russell Long.
“Every time my good friends across the aisle try to raise taxes on my oil refineries a lot of them tend to come to Olympia and want to spend time with me trying to put together a plan to try and defeat those tax increases. So it’s really kind of natural that I’d be spending time with them because of high profile their industries are and how targeted they are here,” he said.
The public-interest question centers as much or more on access as it does on gratis dinners. The rule from eighth grade still applies: Don’t cheat and don’t look like you’re cheating.
The best antidote to the free-meal outrage is to enhance record keeping and have lobbyists file itemized expenses electronically and in real time. Lawmakers also shouldn’t be pocketing a per diem if they’re getting supper for free. What about prohibiting freebies altogether? Yes, please, just as long as we don’t fool ourselves that influence peddling, like campaign fundraising, can be wished away.