What a free dinner buys you

A generation ago, “legislative ethics” couldn’t pass the straight-face test. Olympia lobbyists looked as if they fell out of a Thomas Nast cartoon of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, roaming the veined-marble committee rooms of the Legislative Building, checkbooks in hand.

Over time, the dynamic changed, including a session fundraising freeze, which tamps down the appearance of self-dealing, along with greater transparency and oversight of political campaigns.

Olympia is clean, relative to the 1970s and 80s. But no amount of regulation ensures lawmakers exercise judgment.

The need for specific safeguards was thrown into relief Tuesday as the Legislative Ethics Board noodled what constitutes “infrequent” when establishing the number of meals a lawmaker can accept from self-interested lobbyists. The number they came up with was 12. In Norse mythology, Odin had 12 sons, but otherwise the figure is arbitrary. It sounds, well, frequent enough.

The action and figuring flow directly from an investigative report last year by KUOW’s Austin Jenkins and The Associated Press, which highlighted the unseemly but perfectly legal pageant of legislators accepting $65,000 in free meals from the state’s top 50 lobbyists in the first four months of 2013.

Free grub and entertainment, every day or every other day, but, purportedly, no quid pro quos. (Note as well: Lawmakers shouldn’t be pocketing per diems if they’re landing supper for free.)

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chair of the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, was the biggest offender, accepting $2,000 in meals and attending 62 lobby dinners.

Jenkins and the AP took three weeks to piece together a database. The value of tough-to-unearth data is just that: Other than newshounds, who will dedicate weeks to ferreting out information on lawmakers’ acceptance of gratis meals?

A state House bill that that would have required lobbyists to file itemized expenses electronically died in the Senate this year. So the onus fell on the Ethics Board to fine tune what should be instinctual: Elected officials working in the public interest shouldn’t accept free things from people paid to influence their votes. Period.

As Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge, a member of the board noted, “You can buy your own burrito with a lobbyist.”

Regarding campaign dinero, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “Money, like water, always finds an outlet.”

The Legislative Ethics Board did the right thing. The key now is attracting people to public life who don’t need to be reminded of the obvious.

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