DURING THE 100-DAY (and counting) state budget stalemate, Gov. Rendell offered some common sense ideas to fill the $3.2 billion gap: close sales tax loopholes, tax smokeless tobacco, and charge companies who mine natural gas underneath the state. All of these proposals died, thanks in no small part to the influence of lobbyists in Harrisburg.
An analysis by the Inquirer found that special interests spent more than $4.5 million lobbying the General Assembly during the budget crisis. The money was mostly spent by big companies trying to stop additional taxes and regulations, which made it more difficult to find a budget solution that could pass the General Assembly.
Lobbyists don't just increase the power of special interests. They also diminish the voice of the general public, who don't have the money or expertise to influence the process. Lobbyists help balkanize public policy discussions by fighting for narrow interest groups instead of thinking about what's best for all Pennsylvanians.
To be fair, lobbyist influence isn't just a problem in Harrisburg. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., recently got caught inserting language ghost-written by a health-care lobbyist into the Congressional Record. However, the federal government still has stricter regulation than Pennsylvania, which had no rules at all until 2006.
Here are the current regulations:
Lob byists must register with the state if they spend $2,500 or more lobbying in a three-month period.
Also, if someone served in the Senate, they must wait at least two years before lobbying that chamber.
These simply do not go far enough. Below are four ideas for loosening the grip of lobbyists on Harrisburg. We hope the governor, who has committed to reform in Harrisburg, has them on his list, too.
No campaign contributions from lobbyists. Right now, there are no restrictions on how much a lobbyist can donate to elected officials. Since lobbyists are in the business of trying to influence public policy, this creates the appearance of corruption. Lobbyists should be banned from making campaign contributions.
Lower disclosure threshold. Lobbyists don't need to file a report unless they spend $2,500 or more. That amount should be reduced significantly, perhaps to $100 or even $1. Taxpayers have a right to know whenever a lobbyist tries to influence lawmakers, no matter how much money is spent.
Ban lawmakers from working as lobbyists. Right now, former elected officials are barred from lobbying the body they were a member of for two years. That rule is not strict enough. Here's an idea: If you hold elected office, you should be barred for life from lobbying the same institution. That's a worthwhile trade-off for the honor of representing the people of Pennsylvania.
More restrictions on legislative staffers. Dozens of former staffers now work as lobbyists, with absolutely no restrictions. The standard for staffers shouldn't be as high as legislators, but they should forced to wait at least two years before lobbying the place where they formerly worked.
Even if all of these rules were enacted tomorrow, it wouldn't end the influence of lobbyists in Harrisburg. Lobbying is as old as government and it's not going to disappear anytime soon.
However, these reforms would be a step towards a system that is more transparent, and representative of all, not just those with money.