by Paul Baumbach (President, Progressive Democrats for Delaware), James Browning (Common Cause of DE), and John Stapleford (Caesar Rodney Institute)
Originally published in the News Journal
“If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze . . . and then vote against them, you have no business being up here.”
This famous quote by the politician Jesse Unruh is important to remember as Delaware considers the issue of lobbying reform. Certainly lobbyists serve a lot of good food and provide a lot of free booze for elected officials who are interested in that sort of thing. Yet far more than beer and crab cakes, more than tickets to a NASCAR race, lobbyists’ greatest power in our state capitol comes from the fact that they are there every day, fighting for the interests of their clients or their organization. Woody Allen said that 80% of success is showing up, and lobbyists are paid to do so.
For the average Delawarean who votes, and may even go to Dover once or twice a year to meet with their elected officials, this presents a challenge. How do you compete with a paid lobbyist? The first step, we believe, is learning just how much is being spent by lobbyists in Delaware.
No one wants to stop lobbying, but we need lobbying to be done in the light of day. Gov. Markell has been a strong advocate for more open government. Last year, he supported strengthening the public’s right to obtain government documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Markell’s recent State of the State address urged the legislature to make lobbying more transparent. What does transparent lobbying actually mean?
Lobbyist pay and spending should be public information. Lobbyists paid more than a modest amount should report this to the Public Integrity Commission. Organizations that spend more than a modest amount on lobbying should report expenditures on ALL lobbying-related activities, not only meals, entertainment, and direct contributions, but also research, and publications that encourage people to reach out to their elected officials.
At the same time, reasonable limits must be adopted to end the revolving door of government. An elected official paid by the state should be prohibited from lobbying any part of state government for a moderate amount of time following retirement, perhaps one year. This is a common sense reform that has been stalled in the legislature for years. Its time has come.
As Delaware moves into the months where the State budget is shaped, it is essential that citizens know exactly where lobbyists are investing their time and resources. This will allow taxpayers’ preferences to be balanced against those of well-funded special interest groups.
Transparency is an issue that resonates for progressives, conservatives, and moderates because it gives all three groups the ability to “connect the dots” and begin to understand how lobbying expenditures are affecting their issues in Dover. A recent study by Common Cause Delaware showed that Delaware’s current lobbying law may be capturing as little as ten percent of all spending by lobbyists in our state. Imagine if we could only track ten percent of our officials’ campaign contributions or ten percent of all government spending, and you’ll see why Delaware needs to shine a much brighter light on the role of lobbyists.