The Transylvania Times -

Extend 'Cooling Off' Period

 


Late last week the award-winning North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research released its list of the most influential lobbyists in the state. Former House Speaker Harold Brubaker was named the top lobbyist. He was followed by Dana Simpson, his Special Assistant for Communications and Policy.

It is not unusual for members of the General Assembly to become lobbyists. According to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, “four other former Republican legislators who left the N.C. General Assembly in 2011 or 2012 are ranked among the most influential lobbyists.” The reason they are so influential is that Republicans control the General Assembly. When Democrats controlled the General Assembly, former Democratic legislators or their assistants were the most influential lobbyists.

One problem is that the same people who passed legislation are still major players in shaping legislation. Some legislation comes from outside organizations, such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), while other legislation has been heavily influenced, if not formulated, by lobbyists. Lobbyists are, in effect, a shadow government.

Due to gerrymandering and the benefits that accrue to being an incumbent, some legislators stay in Raleigh for years. Brubaker served 18 terms (36 years) in the House. Though no longer elected, he is still formulating legislation and is probably more powerful than the majority of those elected to the General Assembly.

Legislators often go quickly from their elected position to becoming a lobbyist. This undermines public confidence and invites corruption and back room deals. Who knows how many legislators have supported legislation favorable to particular industries with the understanding that a lobbying position is available upon retirement. (This is particularly true at the federal level where the most egregious, modern example is Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who was instrumental in pushing through the Medicare Part D drug bill and then took an incredibly lucrative job with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.)

The General Assembly’s response to inhibit such deals was to establish a six-month “cooling off period.” This law is meaningless. The General Assembly usually adjourns six months before the next legislative session, so once a legislator retires, he can become a lobbyist for the the very next session. And if, for some reason, the General Assembly session runs longer than expected, legislators circumvent the rule by retiring early. Brubaker did this in 2012 so that he could begin lobbying in 2013. State Senator Tom Goolsby resigned his legislative position just a few weeks ago even though there are still four months left in his official term. Goolsby said he resigned so that he could spend more time with his family Wilmington. But last week Goolsby said he plans to begin working as a lobbyist next year.

Such turnarounds are even affecting the way lobbying is done. It used to be that corporations had an in-house lobbyist, someone who worked solely for one business, like Duke Energy. But now, according to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, there are an increasing number of “contract lobbyists.” These are often retired legislators who hire out their services to the highest bidder. This only entices more legislators to become lobbyists.

Under these circumstances, it becomes difficult to know when legislators, or legislative assistants for that matter, focus more helping those they plan to lobby for in the near future than representing the people who elected them.

There is one solution to slow down the legislator/lobbyist hybrid, and that is to extend the “cooling off period.” A reasonable solution would require legislators to wait at least one full-term from when their elected term ends before becoming a lobbyist. Anyone in the General Assembly or the U.S. House would have to wait two years from when his or her elected term would end (thus stopping early retirements). A much more radical approach would be to require legislators to wait a time equal to their time in office.

To restore the public’s faith that legislators are actually representing their constituents instead of setting themselves up for financial rewards as lobbyists and to dilute the power in our state and national capital that now resides in these legislator/lobbyist hybrids, the “cooling off period” should be extended.

 
 

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