Lobbyists are not the bad guys.
Remember that when chewing on Virginia’s new ethics law that will attempt to rein in the relationship between politicians and the professionals paid to persuade them.
I know, these hired hands in their expensive suits with their limitless credit cards are hard to love. But if you’re looking for culprits in the sleazy orgy that seemed to engulf so much of Richmond in recent years, it’s the elected officials who shamelessly slurped up the freebies.
Think about it for a minute. Lobbyists are merely doing their jobs. They work for corporations and other groups that pay them to “educate” politicians. Education, as we’ve learned, can take curious shapes.
Sometimes, it’s a quick conversation over coffee. Other times, it can be an expensive dinner. Or quail hunting. Wine tastings. Concerts. Private plane rides. All-expenses-paid jaunts to casinos.
But why blame clever lobbyists who probed the soft, weak underbelly of these ethically impaired pols? Instead, blame the avaricious legislators who got to the General Assembly and acted like entitled brats on Christmas morning.
Once ensconced in the Capitol, many of these lawmakers seemed to forget that they were sent there to do the work of the people. They also seem to forget that their paychecks came from the taxpayers.
While their constituents ate wings and watched the Redskins on a big screen at local sports pubs, some lawmakers enjoyed the view from Virginia Dominion Power’s seats at FedEx Field.
While most avid golfers watched the Masters golf tournament on their living room Vizios, some legislators merrily accepted free trips to Augusta, Georgia.
While many Virginians shopped for bargain airfares to fly coach when they traveled, some officials were shuttled to trade missions in style by, you guessed it, lobbyists.
Again, don’t blame the people with the credit cards. Blame those with their hands out.
Lobbyists are paid by companies and other groups — not the taxpayers — and are registered with the state. Last year, there were 870 registered lobbyists representing 1,053 entities.
Chances are, there was a lobbyist in Richmond working for something you support.
Among the groups that employed at least one lobbyist were local cities and public schools. So did airlines, banks, churches, chiropractors, campground owners, dairymen, funeral directors, therapists, law firms, midwives, homeschoolers, hunting dog owners, nurses, media groups, moviemakers, cigar makers, performing arts groups, construction firms and beverage companies.
The Alzheimer’s Association employed at least one lobbyist. So did Prevent Child Abuse Virginia, AARP Virginia, the ACLU of Virginia, Facebook, Google, the Sierra Club, Martinsville Speedway and the Washington Redskins.
Some groups have more to spend than others, of course. According to a recent report by Patrick Wilson in the Virginian-Pilot, Dominion Virginia Power was the biggest spender when it came to entertaining lawmakers, followed by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association.
A law signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe is designed to curtail some of the excess. It limits gifts to $100 from any lobbyist or entity to an elected official in a one-year period.
There are loopholes, of course. Gifts worth $20 or less don’t count, and Wilson notes that lobbyists can still pick up the tab for “expenses for lawmakers performing official duties.” That little quirk will no doubt allow some lawmakers to rake in even more swag.
Clearly, the law will need some tweaking in the next session.
Still, it’s a start.
“The trips will end,” Dominion Virginia Power spokesman David Botkins emailed Wilson.
All of it should end.
It never would have started if politicians knew how to say “no.” S
Kerry Dougherty is a columnist for the Virginian-Pilot.
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