Texas bill the latest revolving door measure to flounder

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Revolving door safeguards are meant to ensure that policymakers are acting in their constituents’ best interests — not their future employers’. (Photo credit: Beth Jusino/Flickr)

From Congress to our county board of supervisors, we want our elected officials to represent their constituents — not moneyed special interests. So, to prevent policymakers who become state lobbyists after leaving office from using insider information or personal relationships from gaining an unfair influence over lawmakers, Congress and most states institute a so-called “cooling-off period” immediately after a legislator leaves office. During this period, they may not lobby their former colleagues.

For members of Congress, the ban lasts one year for representatives and two for senators. State prohibitions vary.

These revolving door safeguards are meant to maintain public trust in government and ensure that policymakers are acting in what they believe is their constituents’ best interests — not their future employers’. State representatives, like members of Congress, often stand to gain a serious pay bump by moving to the lobbying sphere — and many do.

Of course, policing the policymakers is not the first priority of most state assemblies, but recently legislators in several state capitols have introduced legislation aimed at reducing potential conflicts of interest that arise when lawmakers leave public service to become lobbyists.  

Ten states have no mandatory cooling-off periods, according to a 2014 analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. And even among the states that have some restrictions in place, loopholes abound, as the Center for Public Integrity found in a 2013 analysis.

Of all the recent revolving door bills we have seen in state capitols, none are as contentious as Republican state Senator Van Taylor’s ethics package, SB 19, which he recently introduced in the Texas Senate. The package is in part a response to Lone Star State Gov. Greg Abbott, R, who named ethics reform one of the signature issues of this session, according to The Dallas Morning News.

The Senate bill that Taylor sponsored would impose a two-year ban on Texas’ representatives and senators from lobbying the legislature. On Tuesday, the Texas House passed a reconfigured version of Taylor’s bill, minus the revolving door restrictions, but added a provision aimed at rooting out political dark money (another issue central to Sunlight’s mission.)

In a statement on the House’s differing version offered by state Rep. Byron Cook, R, Taylor wrote, “The challenge before us is to look within and shine a brighter light on elected officials in order to give the people of Texas greater confidence that the politicians they elect to be their voice in government serve only them.” He also cited concerns about the potential chilling effect on free speech brought about by mandatory nonprofit political disclosure.

Attempts in other states to slow the revolving door’s spin have also sputtered.

In New Mexico, which has a post-employment lobbying ban for some government employees but not state legislators, a bill from Republican state Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque aimed at establishing a two-year cooling-off period failed to gain any traction and had stalled by the time the legislature broke for recess. This comes in spite of editorial support for the measure from the Albuquerque Journal and Common Cause New Mexico.

Though efforts to impose a two-year ban had success in the state’s House, it faced a cooler reception in the Senate. State Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, told a reporter, “It’s nobody’s business in this chamber other than mine what I do when I leave this chamber,” according to Missourinet. SB 11, sponsored by state Rep. Ron Richard, a Republican, failed to reach the desk of Gov. Jay Dixon, D, before the session ended.

A similar measure in Washington state also failed to make it out of committee, while a reform bill in Illinois met a similar fate.

State revolving door bills in 2015

All bill information from Open States

There have been some bright spots for lobbying reform, however.

In Illinois, recently-elected Gov. Bruce Rauner, R, issued an executive order banning executive branch and state agency employees from negotiating a lobbying job while employed by the state, and prohibits employees from becoming registered lobbyists for one year after the end of their government service.

Rauner told constituents in a statement, “We have a moral obligation to rebuild the reputation within our state, along with our perception within the country, to ultimately renew taxpayers’ faith in government.”

You can see all of the proposed efforts in the table above, populated with data from Sunlight’s Open States.