On the Trail: Lawmakers struggle to close General Assembly's 'revolving door'
If there was one big lesson that John Lamping learned during his tenure in the Missouri Senate, it was that it’s very difficult to pass a bill – but very simple to kill one.
Case in point: The former GOP lawmaker proposed two-year ban on lawmakers going into lobbying, something that’s taken hold in other states and throughout the U.S. Congress. But Lamping’s proposal never got off the ground.
He contends: “Every single time that I went down this path, whatever floor time or whatever committee hearings were held – they were all for show only.”
“When you get free tickets to the World Series, that’s a bad thing,” Lamping said. “When you vote in exchange for political contributions, that’s a bad thing. But this is the Full Monty. This is where you over time build up a working relationship with a special interest. And the understanding is once your time is over, that the rest of your life or the significant portion of your life you will be very well cared for.”
When talk of “ethics reform” percolates around Missouri politics, some lawmakers like Lamping bring up the idea of a “cooling off period” for lawmakers to become lobbyists. This comes as some legislators like former House Speaker Steve Tilley, state Rep. Noel Torpey and former President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey resigned early from legislative posts to transition into governmental relations. Others have moved into lobbying after losing an election or terming out of office.
“Those who want to pursue a career in politics once they’ve left elective office, they will do everything they can to see that those bills fail,” Lamping said. “And to the extent that there are forces and special interests that utilize the ability to offer up high-paying positions to somebody post their political career, they too don’t want to see these bills pass because it then takes away an instrument they can use to sway an elected official while that elected official has that ability to vote.”
“So it’s bad,” he added. “It’s really bad.”
But cooling off periods haven't made it to the legislative finish line. This past session one was put into legislation sponsored by Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, a wide-ranging ethics bill that didn't end up passing. “It was watered down to where the revolving door doesn’t even apply to the sitting legislators,” said Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph. “I mean, it’s almost a joke.”
Some lawmakers have philosophical objections to "cooling off" periods. State Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, voted against Richard's ethics bill because he objected to "taking away the rights of the people back home to hire who they want to hire in Jefferson City."
Dempsey recently stepped down from the Missouri Senate and joined the Gateway Group, a lobbying firm. He said on a recent episode of Politically Speaking that he likely won’t lobby his former colleagues in the Missouri Capitol, but will instead focus in on Washington, D.C., and Florida. (He also noted on Monday evening that he helped pass a number of ethics-related measures, including eliminating "caucuses" that were likely created to evade lobbyist gift reporting requirements.)
“When you make the sacrifice that we make in terms of public service, it’s because you care about the issues that you’re working on,” Dempsey said. “I don’t think it’s a problem. If you conduct yourself ethically is what should be most important -- and how you pursue the issues that you care about. And I think there are a lot of good people who work in Jefferson City. I think I was one of them that shouldn’t be barred from the ability to be gainfully employed beyond their public service in governmental relations.”
During a 2013 appearance on Politically Speaking, Tilley was asked if he would have minded waiting a few years before transitioning into lobbying. Tilley, who is also an ophthalmologist, replied: “You abide by the rules that are in place.”
“If the rules were in place, I would have waited two years,” Tilley said. “I’ve got a profession. This is just something that I enjoy doing. I really enjoy the political process. I enjoy policymaking. And so, I chose to do it because I actually enjoy doing it.”
Can you close the revolving door?
Missouri is one of 12 states with no cooling off period for lawmakers to become lobbyists. Roughly 28 states have one-year “revolving door bans,” eight have two-year bans and two have a ban lasting less than a year.
Mark Quiner directs the Center for Ethics in Government, part of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He said the revolving door bans can take on different shapes: Kansas, he says, prohibits a former legislator from “being involved in any contracted funded while the legislator is in office.”
“It is hard to determine when a law is truly ‘effective’ because this can take so many different shapes,” Quiner said in an e-mail to St. Louis Public Radio, adding that his organization doesn’t comment on whether a particular law is good or bad. “For example, if one views not having former legislators as lobbyists, a longer prohibition would be more effective.
“However, perhaps legislators make effective lobbyists and require only a short period of time away from the statehouse to reduce the appearance of impropriety; or, maybe an effective revolving door policy will allow a legislator to use their expertise on an issue, while preventing them from actually influencing the legislative process, i.e. as a consultant,” he said.
“Effectiveness” is often brought up when dissecting the, well, effectiveness of cooling off periods. The Los Angeles Times recently wrote about how some former lawmakers were able to get around a federal cooling off period by not registering as lobbyists – but instead becoming “advisers” or assisting lobbying-oriented law firms.
Lawmakers like Schaaf contend that a ballot initiative may be the most effective vehicle to get “ethics reforms” like cooling-off periods established. Lamping, who is backing Eric Greitens’ gubernatorial bid, said “the only way that it will pass is you’ve got to have an extremely strong powerful executive governor. And you’ve got to have a governor who’s going to have more political capital and sway than do the interests.”
So long, farewell
State Rep. Keith English caused a bit of a stir a few weeks ago when he announced he wouldn’t run for another term in the Missouri House. The Independent from Florissant told the Missouri Times he “was approached by a gentleman interested in putting me to work in Jefferson City,” and added “it’s a conflict of interest to keep the job I’ve been offered and run for political office.”
When this reporter contacted English, he wouldn’t divulge what he would be doing next. But he said it'd be incorrect to assume he's heading into lobbying or governmental relations, and added “it won’t have anything to do with [legislative votes] at all.” He also said the job is not going to be available until 2017.
Another reason was his recent marriage: “I need to focus on the family a little bit and step away from serving the people and the city of Florissant for a little while.”
“The reason that I came out was because there are so many good candidates in my district on both sides of the party line that have been interested and have been vocal about running,” English said.
After defeating incumbent state Rep. Bert Atkins in 2012, English gained some notoriety for his mixed martial arts abilities and for voting to override a gubernatorial veto for a tax cut. He became an Independent earlier this year after lots of disagreements with his Democratic colleagues.
“People have said that no matter what I decide to do, that I’ll do very good at it,” English said. “[They’ve said] that I’m a hard worker, that I’m a no-nonsense guy. I don’t (expletive) people. I’m not a liar. When I get up on the floor and speak, it’s all fact. No matter what I do, I’m going to work hard at it. And as far as people getting into the private sector and lobbying and that type of stuff, a lot of people don’t make it in that. First of all, there’s not a whole lot of money there. And it does take money to survive in life.
“But I don’t really have an opinion on private sector and lobbying,” he added. “It takes a special person to be able to do that anyway.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.