State-level Ethics and Lobbying Reform Ahead of Congress


In a little more than 24 hours the Democrats will take the reigns of power in Congress and begin their rule by enacting lobbying and ethics reform measures that are long overdue. Earmark reform, greater lobbying disclosure, bans on certain gifts and travel. It all sounds pretty good but according to the New York Times it’s nothing compared to what the states have been doing.

Over the past couple of years states have been dealing with the same kind of serious scandals in politics — illegal lobbying practices, quid pro quos, bribery, and shady land deals — that engulfed the Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections. But instead of passing the buck and ignoring the problem state legislatures and Governors have been strengthening ethics and lobbying rules across the country. Incoming legislatures and Governors, many of them elected due to the corrupt or unethical practices of the previous ruling party, are planning even more sweeping changes in the way business is done.

The Times article notes a number of changes in state laws that have already gone into effect:

More than a dozen states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have enacted so-called pay-to-play laws that block contractors or executives of their companies from making campaign contributions to officials who could influence state contracts.

Connecticut, reeling from a payoff scandal that unseated its governor, recently passed a pay-to-play law that takes aim at a time-tested tactic for evading contribution limits: funneling money through dependents. The law bans campaign contributions not only from lobbyists and contracting executives but also from their children and spouses. To make enforcement easier, lobbyists and contractors would be required to disclose the names of their family members on a public Web site.

Both Pennsylvania and North Carolina also passed sweeping lobbying and ethics reforms in 2006. North Carolina created an independent ethics commission and imposed new rules on gift-giving. Pennsylvania, a state that suffered multiple lobbying scandals recently, passed new restrictions and tougher disclosure requirements for lobbyists. Tennessee also created an independent ethics commission after a federal bribery investigation led to indictments of multiple state politicians.

The New Year and new state officials haven’t been shy about pushing for strong lobbying and ethics reforms. In New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer enacted a number of reforms by executive order on his first day in office. Spitzer’s executive orders “prohibited nepotism in hiring and contracting, and barred former state workers from lobbying the agency or authority where they worked for two years after their departure. State employment officials were also barred from asking job candidates about their party affiliation. Mr. Spitzer also prohibited state workers from making contributions to the campaigns of the governor or lieutenant governor, or affiliated political action committees.” Spitzer is also aggressively pushing a set of lobbying reforms in the legislature.

Florida’s new Governor Charlie Crist began his tenure by creating an office of open government in the Governor’s office to “to ‘assure full and expeditious compliance’ with the open-government laws, and to ‘provide training to all government agencies on transparency and accountability.’”

CongressDaily reports that starting tomorrow the new House leadership will push lobbying reforms that would put a “ban on lobbyist-funded travel and gifts” among other things. Friday will see earmark reform and pay-go rules instituted. The Democrats need to either allow members to offer further reforms than those proposed or they need to revisit this issue after the first 100 hours agenda is complete. Further ethics reforms and new disclosure rules, hopefully more in line with today’s technological capabilities, need to be considered in the committees and on the floor. Congress needs to start to catch up with the states, and fast.