ANNAPOLIS – The revolving door between the Legislature and lobbying needs to be locked — at least for a little while.
That’s the message of several bills that would prohibit former members of the General Assembly from lobbying within one or two years of their retirement or defeat.
If such a law were already in place, a number of big-name ex-legislators might be out of work right now. They include: former Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, former Sen. Lawrence Levitan, former Sen. James C. Simpson, former House Speaker Clayton Mitchell Jr., former House Speaker Pro Tem Gary Alexander and former Del. George Litrell, all now lobbying.
Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, sponsor of a measure requiring legislators to take a one-year “cooling-off” period before lobbying, says his goal is to “protect the good of the institution.” The bill will have a hearing on Feb. 28.
Miedusiewski, who became a lobbyist after his defeat in the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary, calls the bills “overreaction.”
Miedusiewski is managing director of the Semmes Public Affairs Group, a lobbying and public relations branch of the law firm of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes. He believes a legislative background just makes him a better businessman whose knowledge benefits his clients.
“If you go to Portugal for vacation, you wouldn’t want to hire a tour guide from Chile,” he says. “I bring 20 years of relationships and experience with committee structures and internal workings to my clients.”
But Poole maintains legislators who become lobbyists have an unfair advantage — an argument he made last year with a similar but stricter bill calling for a two-year waiting period.
That measure failed after an “eruption of debate” because, Poole says, “The House leadership largely was opposed.”
But they appear to have had a change of heart.
Del. Gerald Curran, D-Baltimore and chairman of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, has sponsored a bill with a two-year waiting period, while Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, authored an identical companion bill in his chamber. The House bill will have a hearing Tuesday; the Senate bill Friday.
Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Van Hollen Jr., D- Montgomery, would require a two-year waiting period but exempt former legislators lobbying on behalf of state or local government agencies. The bill will be heard Friday.
Poole says he attributes the sudden fervor of reform legislation to the bad press surrounding lobbying and the sheer number of legislators who now lobby.
“I was teased the first day of session because now the leadership wants this reform to happen,” Poole says. “Now everyone wants to shut the barn door after the horses have escaped.”
Van Hollen says the reason for cooling-off legislation is two-fold:
First, “I think it’s very important to restore public confidence and make sure legislators exercise independence of judgment,” he says.
Second, “People have a feeling that the relationship is too cozy between legislators and lobbyists.”
Poole agrees. “Legislators take a position of public trust, and lobbying directly after serving in such a position raises questions,” he says.
Lawmakers who know in advance they will be lobbying after their term might be more susceptible to special interests, Poole says.
“Without a cooling-off period, lobbying could cloud people’s judgement,” he says. “There is no safeguard that their interests won’t be swayed.”
Van Hollen says legislators-turned-lobbyists, with their “inordinate amount of access to other legislators,” also could exert more influence on former colleagues.
Not so, says Miedusiewski. He says being lobbied by former colleagues never swayed his judgment, even when the lobbyist was former Del. Dennis McCoy — the only former legislator to ever make the Top 10 list of highest earning lobbyists, according to the State Ethics Commission.
“I knew [McCoy], but he still had to prove his point to me,” Miedusiewski says. “I think legislators take great pride in their jobs. I don’t think many legislators would risk their reputations because of a friendship they had with someone.”
Levitan, who represented clients before state agencies while serving as chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, says the cooling-off period make no difference in the public’s eye. “They’re never going to make the public change their perception of legislators, no matter what they do,” he says. “The public’s perception and reality are two very different things.” -30-