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No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

February 14, 2012

The role of lobbyists – their deep pockets and capacity to influence the legislative and rule-making process – has been a particularly hot topic under Georgia’s Gold Dome and around the nation’s Capitol.  On a local note, the Alliance for Ethics Reform – a coalition including Common Cause Georgia, Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Georgia Watch, and League of Women Voters Georgia – is pressing for a cap on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators.  They support HB 798.

With such a focus on ethics and gifts, perhaps that explains one legislator’s defense of lobbyists’ gift giving.

“Lobbyists have no influence on me,” according to State Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan as published in the Newnan Times Herald – one of several articles published, including a front-page story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (January 29, 2012), about a recent dinner hosted and paid for by multiple organizations representing regulated industries plus the Georgia Conservancy.  These groups all stand to gain a lot by cultivating a relationship with the House Natural Resources Committee, which Smith chairs.  The lobbyists picked-up the $1,436.56 tab for her committee’s dinner.  If not to influence them, then why?

First: “Sometimes…you talk to lobbyists to get an idea,” said Smith.  And who did Smith and the other twenty-or so members speak with to get ideas?  According to the Newnan Times Herald: the Georgia Conservancy and the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation paid $222.92 each to cover the meal, and the rest – Georgia Poultry Federation, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Mining Association, Georgia EMC, the Georgia Agribusiness Council, and the Georgia Chemistry Council, as well as Steve Allen (who lobbies for Joe Tanner & Associates among others) and Allen Richardson (lobbies for the Koch brothers’ Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC) – chipped in $123.84 each.

Second: Smith has said the committee cast a net for sponsors to pay for and host the dinner.  Other legislators have indeed argued they need and appreciate the free grub to make ends meet while working as part-time legislators (they take home about $17,500/yr. for their public service).  So the lobbyists say they obliged.

As I have been taught in this world, there is no such thing as a free lunch or dinner or cocktail.  As such, it is hard to think Smith and other legislators are not influenced by these efforts.  It’s also hard to believe these interest groups are feeding hungry legislators as a form of charity: if these interests didn’t think they could influence legislators, why would they spend the money or build elaborate firms staffed by former agency officials?

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a registered “lobbyist” in Georgia so I can legally discuss, and advocate on behalf of, specific pieces of legislation with legislators since it’s a part of my job at Georgia River Network.  Our organization also sponsors an annual Legislative Breakfast hosted by the Georgia Conservation Voters; we invite every Georgia legislator to attend regardless of the constituents or committees they serve.   This lobbying activity is not on par with those who sponsored the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee soirée.  We fully depend on the voices and strength of people throughout the state of Georgia who care about clean water to encourage legislators to do the right thing and follow the letter of the law.

Perspective: On recent Planet Money podcasts, former lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Jimmy Williams made clear that paying for dinner may be one thing but lobbyists’ ability to raise campaign contributions is another ballgame.  Both men now advocate for campaign finance and Constitutional reform to get money out of politics.  Visit United Republic for more information.

The take home lesson: Cultivating relationships in the form of hosting dinners, tickets to sporting events or concerts, or all-expense paid trips make a difference in the world of politics.  And campaign contributions are probably the way for lobbyists to seal the deal with our local, state, and national lawmakers, many of whom are now preparing re-election campaigns.

For more on ethics, lobbyists, and reporting schedules in Georgia, surf here.

-Chris Manganiello

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