Many Bay State lawmakers hang around to arm-twist their colleagues

PIGEONS are as much a part of Boston Common as the Frog Pond. And few of these birds seldom stray very far. So it is with another species that flutters about the corridors, hearing rooms, and offices across the street at the State House.

These ``political homing pigeons'' are former lawmakers, aides, and others who have found soft nests on Beacon Hill.

Some are little more than hangers-on who have managed to stay on the public payroll or get back on it, and not always because of what they know, but more likely for whom they know.

Others, although certainly no less present, have gone into a new line - lobbying. They represent businesses and other special interests.

While it may never be known to what extent personal friendship may influence lawmakers and members of agencies, the possibility of cronyism giving former lawmakers an unfair advantage has long been recognized.

A legislator, for example, is forbidden by statute from lobbying among former colleagues for at least a year after leaving office. Similarly, a member of the executive branch is similarly barred.

Those restrictions are better than nothing. But in these days when lobbying has become more and more a part of the lawmaking and regulatory scene, greater safeguards may be in order.

Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy has suggested an end to what she refers to as a ``revolving door'' system under which somebody leaves government one day and returns the next promoting private interests to Beacon Hill lawmakers with whom they served.

Miss Murphy told a Sept. 28 seminar marking the 10th anniversary of the state Ethics Commission that a change in the conflict-of-interest law is needed to mandate a ``cooling off'' period for those leaving office, before they engage in lobbying.

It is not clear, however, whether Murphy intends to pursue her proposal or wait for others, like Common Cause/Massachusetts, to pick it up. Clearly something should be done.

One possibility might be to increase the period from the current one year to four years or more before a former legislator could lobby even indirectly among legislators, or anywhere in state government.

A similar lengthened and expanded lobbying restriction might, in all fairness, be imposed on those who leave key posts in the executive branch.

Increased restrictions on lobbying could help shore up public confidence in the integrity of this perfectly legitimate and often useful activity.

This need not impose an undue hardship on anyone. After looking around outside the government arena, former lawmakers and state agency heads should have little or no difficulty finding careers away from Beacon Hill.

Since conflicts of interest can sometimes play a role in lobbying, protecting the integrity of the lawmaking, including overseeing the activities of the lobbyists, might best be handled by the state Ethics Commission.

Those representing various clients, including special interests, currently must register annually with the secretary of state and spell out how much they are compensated. But this may not be enough.

Shifting that operation to the Ethics Commission would seem to make sense since that independent agency could sift through the scores of reports and then police lobbying activities.

The Ethics Commission, since its inception a decade ago, has proved both fair and effective in uncovering and eliminating conflicts of interest involving public officials or employees.

The bipartisan Ethics Commission, headed by Harvard Law School dean James Vorenberg during its first five years and now by Boston University Law School dean Colin Diver, has not been timid in its enforcement of the law .

To protect the continuing independence of the ethics panel, the law creating the agency provides not only that no more than three of the members can be from the same political party but that each can serve no more than a five-year term.

Three of the unpaid commissioners are appointed by the governor and one each by the attorney general and secretary of state.

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