If you try to buy influence with an officer enforcing a law, you may wind up in jail for bribery. But if you try to buy influence with the person making a law, you are playing by the book.
Hopefully, we’re seeing some change to this at the state level this session. But I’m still skeptical that the back-scratching culture will actually change.
Georgia voters spoke clearly this summer, saying that the gifts lawmakers receive from lobbyists are indeed a corrupting influence. Eighty-two percent of voters favored limiting gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.
My question: why allow gifts at all? Why not call a bribe a bribe on both sides of the law, the enforcement and the creation?
The argument for lobbying perks goes like this: The world of legislating involves many dinners, many functions with companies and constituencies, which would lead to considerable personal expense without the interested parties kicking in to wine, dine and influence the lawmakers with trinkets, tickets and trips.
No doubt, that’s true. There is considerable expense to such a lifestyle. But if lawmakers get too caught up in the wine-and-dine circuit, then aren’t they falling out of touch with the purpose of their office? Remember, nothing is free. When lawmakers get a freebie, there’s an implied quid pro quo, whether or not the lawmaker acknowledges it.
This has been just part of the game for the legislator on the receiving end, who will assure the public of his integrity — that he is not for sale. No, sir. Not me.
But then we watch voting records and we see time and again that donors get their wheels greased. It’s the way politics works. Consequently, we grow more disgusted, less interested, less trusting, less involved. “They’re all the same,” is the mantra when it comes to politicians.
Actually, no. That’s very far from true. They are like any other people group — a mix of good and bad. But the system forces an appearance of sameness in the way the game is played.
Real reform would ban all gifts to lawmakers, but also set a reasonable budget for lawmakers to attend various functions. Once they’ve exceeded that budget, they can conduct all business like most of the rest of us — in their office or by phone.
Some argue that a ban will just drive influence peddling underground. Perhaps, but plenty of bad behavior is “underground.” So, should we avoid making sensible rules because we’re afraid that people will break them?
We don’t tolerate influence peddling in many areas. For instance, I have had, on rare occasions, very nice people bring goodies by the office. It is truly nice and I am thankful for any kindness offered. But people often fail to recognize that any “gift” creates a moral problem for any journalist worth his salt. He or she is in the boat with the referee or the judge, people committed to objectivity in what they do. For instance, imagine if I took a $100 steak dinner from a politician I had to write about. Could you trust that I was shooting the story straight? Now, think about a local judge getting a $100 gift card from Target from a defendant. Think about a referee accepting a gift basket from a coach of one team prior to the game.
For that matter, think about a commissioner getting a $100 golf outing from a zoning applicant. We’d be livid at a board member for taking such a perk from someone trying to buy a vote.
Bump that matter up to the state or federal level, though, and gifts become OK? Really? Why?
Now, state lawmakers are looking to limit the gifts they can receive, since the public has clearly spoken on the matter. The Atlanta Journal reported that the state Senate set a $100 cap on lobbyists’ gifts to its members through a change in the chamber’s rules in January. A proposed House bill would ban lobbyists from giving gifts to state lawmakers.
We’ll see how it plays out this legislative session. But I’ll feel best when legislators begin sharing my language on the gift-giving practice, referring to it as “bribery.” Isn’t that the appropriate word?
No doubt, I’m a broken record about this. Because I blame our economic malaise on these cozy legislator/lobbyist arrangements. Here’s what I mean: After the Great Depression, our grandfathers passed legislation aimed at curtailing reckless gambling by banks that many millions of Americans trusted with all their money. But years passed, and the Depression seemed like a distant memory. Banks and other financial institutions threw loads of cash and gifts at our federal lawmakers, asking for a relaxation of those post-Depression era safeguards, which were considered antiquated. Unfortunately, they complied.
So we had a great boom and waves of cash as the Wall Street casino roared. But it was a painful drunk. And when the world sobered up, we saw that the binge was based on high wagers on financial fabrications — a toxic concoction set in motion by the removal of old-time safeguards.
The truly infuriating fact is this: those old post-Depression rules still haven’t been put back in place, because lawmakers in Washington are still beholden to those who wine and dine them, to those who promise them high-dollar consulting jobs, to those who have an interest in maintaining a high-stakes game of chance with our money.
So, count me out when it comes to supporting any gift giving for our lawmakers.
I’m sure some cops would like some gifts too from those seeking to influence them. Isn’t that commonplace in parts of the world? But we expect better of our lawmen.
Shouldn’t the same go for our lawmakers?
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.