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Friday, July 21, 2006 | As citizens, we must carefully consider whether to continue allowing our elected officials to accept large amounts of bundled contributions from the very people who lobby them.
Last week, the Ethics Commission decided it would not change the city’s lobbying laws to address the appearance of corruption that exists when high-dollar fundraisers lobby elected officials. Instead, the Ethics Commission will focus its reforms on the public disclosure of fundraising activity by lobbyists. While I understand and appreciate the opinions of my fellow commissioners, I respectfully disagree. Despite the commission’s decision, the proposal to limit lobbyist fundraising should be seriously considered by the City Council. My comments here reflect only my opinions and not those of the city’s Ethics Commission or its staff.
Before discussing the proposal’s merits, it is important to make clear what the proposal does and does not do. The proposal only applies to paid lobbyists – that is, people paid to influence government decisions. Under the proposal, if a lobbyist raises over $5,000 to support a candidate running for city office and that candidate is elected, the lobbyist cannot lobby that specific elected official during that term of office. In other words, high-dollar fundraisers would be prohibited from influencing elected officials they raise money for outside the public’s view.
These lobbyists could still speak at City Council meetings and other public meetings, could write public letters to elected officials, and could speak privately to any elected official for whom the lobbyist did not raise over $5,000. The proposal does not ban lobbyists from personally donating to any city candidate and then lobbying that person, nor does it (as the recent Union-Tribune editorial suggested) define “lobbyist” as anyone who sent “more than 50 e-mails asking for donations to the candidate of his choice.” The proposal simply seeks to reduce the influence of high dollar fundraisers beyond that of other lobbyists or ordinary citizens. (Let us remember, a lobbyist who raises $5,000 for a City Council candidate, provides the equivalent of what 20 people can give at the maximum level.)
There are three reasons to support the proposal. First, there is a consistent and deeply felt belief in the public’s mind that lobbyists who raise substantial sums of money for elected officials have an undue and, some would say corrupting, level of influence. One of the most amazing aspects of last week’s hearing was that everyone (lobbyists included) agreed that the public perceives lobbyists as having an untoward influence on our elected officials. To ignore this perception simply exacerbates the cynicism citizens feel toward their government. The U.S. Supreme Court determined long ago that fighting the appearance of corruption alone was a compelling government interest sufficient to support such limited restrictions in political fundraising. In San Diego, we have the appearance of corruption in spades.
Second, fundraising alters the relationship between lobbyists and elected officials. The fact is, high-dollar fundraising equals access. A high-dollar fundraiser gets face time with elected officials, direct phone numbers, officials’ private e-mail accounts and access to high-level staff that ordinary citizens simply do not get. Disclosure, despite all its benefits, cannot change this. The proposal’s narrow restrictions address this. Lobbyists would have to sway elected officials only with the merits of their arguments and not because they have more time to talk to elected officials in private without the benefit of counter view points from constituents with similar access.
Finally, the proposal gives elected officials a bright line rule thereby protecting them and the lobbyists. Say what you will about the recent City Council prosecutions, one thing is clear: the line between lobbying tied to legal campaign fundraising and quid pro quo votes for money is far from clear. If we create a law that says someone who raises more than $5,000 for an elected official cannot subsequently be paid to lobby that official, there is no question where the line is.
Lobbyists are not bad people or inherently corrupt. They serve an important purpose in our democracy. But until we create alternatives to the powerful mixture of money and influence, we will not have a government that is truly accountable and responsive to its people. The proposal was a critical first step in the right direction.
Gil Cabrera is vice chairman of San Diego Ethics Commission and is an attorney with Cooley Godward LLP.