Why clout of lobbyists is growing
As term limits force out state lawmakers, special-interest power rises, spurring a revolt.
SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — When California became one of the first states to adopt term limits for state lawmakers, voters hoped to strike a blow against the influence of special interests. Thirteen years later, it is becoming clear that, if anything, term limits have done precisely the opposite.
Most of the career politicians are indeed gone - along with their deep connections to certain lobbyists. What has risen in their place, though, is the ignorance of inexperience. With 32 freshmen among the 80 members of the Assembly this year - more than half are term-limit replacements - uncertainty has become a rule. Lobbyists have filled the void as impromptu tutors on issues ranging from the tax code to federal welfare funds. Though perhaps most pronounced here, the state where lobbyists spend the most money, the trend has begun spreading to other term-limit states, propelling lobbyists to both a prominence and boldness not seen for decades.
"If one of the primary intentions of term limits was to reduce the influence of special interests, then they have failed abysmally," says Jim Knox of California Common Cause. "Monied special interests are much more able to dictate policy outcomes" than before.
According to a 2001 study in the government journal Spectrum, 74 percent of lobbyists said legislators were less knowledgeable about issues now than before term limits. More than 60 percent said the change had given interest groups more clout.
Indeed, in Florida, term-limited legislators have raised eyebrows by returning to Tallahassee and using their expertise as lobbyists. Lobbyists in Colorado have "more power pooling in their hands" because of superior experience and knowledge of the issues, says Pete Maysmith of Colorado Common Cause.
Yet there are signs of a backlash. And the clutch of bipartisan lawmakers that gathered in the press room of the California state Capitol last week are leading it. They introduced two first-of-their kind bills that would restrict the activities of registered lobbyists who also serve as political consultants.
While the bills' scope is limited - only one lobbyist currently fits the description - they close an important loophole, experts say. Moreover, at a time when the Legislature is consumed by a budget already two weeks late - and held up purely by partisan politics - the gathering was a statement in itself, as well as a starting block for reform.
"This is the first step toward removing the stranglehold of special interests on state government," said Rep. Keith Richman (R).
There have been other steps. The Speaker of the Assembly created a panel to look at everything from the chamber's code of conduct to the question of who can lobby the Assembly and where they can go. A similar task force of lobbyists has been convened in Colorado. Each is a response to what many see as an escalation of extreme lobbying.
In the spring, a Colorado interest group compiled a rap sheet on an opposing lobbyist, and then had a lobbyist distribute it. Then, during a recent three-week span in California, one lobbyist posted portions of lawmakers' Social Security numbers online when an Internet-privacy bill was squelched. Another uncorked a profanity-filled tirade at two staffers, threatening political retribution for their opposition to a bill. Such behavior remains uncommon. But political observers suggest it is merely the most public example of the way term limits have shifted the tectonics of special interests and state politics.
With more money pouring in from special interests, lobbyists are under more pressure to get results. Yet term limits have shrunk the window of opportunity. Whereas lobbyists once built up and maintained relationships with legislators over years, they now face a slot machine of new faces that spins every few elections. The result is a new urgency that occasionally bubbles over. "You can't say, 'I'll scratch your back, you scratch my back later on,' " says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "There is no later on. There's just now."
To Donald Burns, the cautious reaction to such behavior is just as telling as the outbursts themselves. A lobbyist in Sacramento since the 1950s, he can't imagine any legislators of the past putting up with a rogue lobbyist. Lobbyists knew their place, he says, and if they forgot it, they were likely to get an earful. "When we had a more experienced Legislature, that sort of thing would have been dealt with very quickly by leadership," he says. "The institutional memory breeds a code of ethics."
Experts say it is this institutional memory that has swung the Legislature toward the "Third House" of special interests. In short, lobbyists have it. Legislators don't. California state Rep. Dario Frommer (D) hopes to refresh it. He wrote one of the bills, and along with his coterie of reformers, he paints a picture of special interests that is far more Munch than Monet.
He recalls Artie Samish, the longtime lobbyist who had a puppet named "Mr. Legislature" and once quipped, "I'm the governor of the Legislature."
"Fifty years later," Mr. Frommer says, "we find ourselves in a very similar sitaution."