That Old Revolving Door
Legislators-turned-lobbyists not usually the big dogs
by Frank Cagle
The latest shoe to drop in the unfolding mess in Nashville is House Minority Leader Tre Hargett’s decision to resign his office and take a job lobbying for a drug company. He did this, most think, because any package of ethics legislation during a coming special session may include a prohibition against legislators becoming lobbyists without at least a one-year waiting period.
This might seem to give the Democrats the high ground on this issue, but in the current push for ethics legislation neither party has the high ground. There isn’t any. The Democrats have opposed any law in the past that would have prevented the practice. Former state Rep. Mike Williams, D-Franklin, resigned his seat to become a lobbyist for the petroleum industry. But that was a few years ago, not in the middle of an ethics “crisis.”
Legislators becoming lobbyists is not quite so big a problem as you might imagine. Of all the former legislators who now lobby, few would be considered in the big leagues. Those that are doing well have been lobbyists longer than they were legislators and left office so long ago many members forget they served. Most of recent “retired” legislators just get a client or two so they can still go back to Nashville for the session. It is the addictive nature of the political culture, the night life and the “action” that draws former legislators back. It isn’t so much the money.
A legislator who has power, is effective, and might be considered a formidable talent to become a lobbyist, is rarely defeated. Some of the current legislator-lobbyist crowd were backbench Republicans knocked off because they voted for the state income tax. People like Zane Whitson, who has two clients. Joe Kent also has two clients.
Former legislator Steve Bivens is doing well. He and his three children have about 25 clients among the four of them. (He’ll have to answer to the Lord for allowing his three children to become lobbyists, but it’s none of our business.)
There are exceptions, like former House Majority Leader Tommy Burnett, who is a highly paid and effective lobbyist. But Burnett has been out of office for years and even spent some time in jail before his return. The Legislature has a boatload of members who were not even there when Burnett was in the Legislature. He is an effective lobbyist for the same reason he was such an effective majority leader—political skills, an engaging personality and a steel-trap memory.
A one-year waiting period would be a minor irritant; the legislator would miss one session. Though it might prevent lining up a client while still in office, it won’t really stop the practice.
You have attorneys like House Majority Leader Kim McMillan; her firm has nine lobbyists at the Legislature. You have state Rep. Gary Odum, the executive director of the state Optometric Association. How many legislators are teachers, or are married to teachers? Should they vote on teacher pay raises? What about insurance agents? Should they vote on insurance bills? Not to mention funeral home directors, bankers, farmers, health care professionals and business people of all kinds.
I think the only way to avoid conflicts might be to elect 132 unemployed Vestal Virgins. But they, being unemployed, might be tempted to spend campaign money on NASCAR tickets. Not to mention the likelihood that the virginity thing would not survive the first session.
When we talk about legislation to ensure ethical behavior among our legislators, there is one thing that tends to get lost in the general uproar. Most legislators, though they have some influence, rarely have the final say in what bills get passed.
The most important bills that get passed or killed during a session have their fates determined by about 10 lobbyists and about a dozen legislators who run the House and Senate. The speakers and the key committee chairs make all the decisions, and they (and the governor) decide what goes into the budget and what gets dropped.
We can pass rules requiring that rank and file House and Senate members jump through hoops, fill out forms and subject their finances to an auditor’s colonoscopy. But to change the current system we need to know how much is being spent to influence legislation, and we need someone elected by the people to investigate and prosecute corruption—someone who is independent of the power structure and not controlled by the governor’s office, the speakers and a handful of special interest lobbyists.
Everything else is feel-good back patting.
Here’s a start. The Tennessee Press Association has a lobbyist. To set a good example the TPA could ask him to reveal his income from all his various clients, including the state’s press organizations. It might start a stampede among the rest of the lobbyists for full disclosure.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .