POSTED ON MARCH 3, 2010:
Lady with the Spinning Head
Politics revolves around the temporal, the intemperate and, with term-limited legislators, a tempest that may be just over the horizon
Amidst the state budget hemorrhaging and the Tenthers' anti-federal-government lunacy, there is a smidgen of good news coming out of the 2010 session.
Oklahoma lawmakers finally appear ready to tackle an abysmal situation that fuels the perception -- and in way too many cases, the reality -- that big money permeates and dominates the legislative process.
Under the Capitol dome, it's known as the Revolving Door, and it's spinning as fast, if not faster, than at any time in state history.
With term limits prematurely ending many elective careers, legislators increasingly are swapping their seats for fat paychecks as lobbyists -- often contracting with the very same special interests that curried their favor while they were in office.
Alarmingly, there is nothing in Oklahoma law that prevents anyone from serving as a duly elected lawmaker or governor one day and hanging out a shingle as a lobbyist the next.
"Even if there's not wrongdoing," said Democratic Sen. Debbe Leftwich of Oklahoma City, "there's definitely the appearance of impropriety.
"It's been out of control far too long."
Leftwich said she currently counts nearly 40 ex-lawmakers -- including a former House Speaker and two former Senate presidents -- among the legion of lobbyists that swarm the Capitol daily, schmoozing legislators in the rotunda between votes, cementing relationships over meals or at special events and exploiting one-on-one time to hawk their employers' narrow interests.
It's a far cry from December 2003 when Leftwich was first elected to succeed her late husband, Keith, who had lost his battle against cancer three months earlier.
During her first session as senator, she recalls, there were "maybe five" former legislators working as lobbyists. But then, term limits began kicking in -- and the number of lawmakers cashing in on their elected experience began to swell.
"It's created," she said, "an un-level playing field for lots of groups out here who can't afford to pay a former legislator" to press their interests full- or part-time at the Capitol.
In response to the troubling trend, Leftwich proposed legislation that would prevent ex-lawmakers, state officers (such as governor, attorney general and insurance commissioner) or state employees from becoming paid lobbyists for two years after they leave office -- a cooling off period modeled after a congressional plan enacted several years ago.
Leftwich's proposal didn't go anywhere for the first five years -- not when Democrats controlled the Senate, not when the Senate was deadlocked 24-24 and not when Republicans owned the majority for the first time in 2009.
But this year, for reasons she can't quite explain, the GOP majority not only allowed her bill to be heard in committee but also to win approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Kenneth Corn of Poteau, could be on the full Senate calendar as early as this week.
It's hard to imagine senators won't approve it (even though more than a few probably think it could crimp their future career choices) because there are few things worse in an election year than appearing ethically challenged or perceptually tone-deaf.
If it escapes the Senate, it goes to the House where one of the fairest, steadiest Republican lawmakers, Rep. Gary Banz of Midwest City, is its sponsor.
The cooling off period is good old-fashioned common sense. I'm not saying this has happened, but I can just imagine scenarios in which term-limited House Speakers, Senate president pro tempores or governors cut backroom deals with special interests -- at the expense of taxpayers -- in exchange for the promise of lucrative future employment.
It's just human nature. And the temptation is too great.
Even if there's no quid pro quo, these cozy Revolving Door relationships often don't pass the smell test.
In Washington, for example, the poster child for the Revolving Door was former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Democrat-turned-Republican who in 2004 parlayed his chairmanship of the House committee that regulated the pharmaceutical industry into one of Washington's highest-paid lobbying posts -- as president and CEO of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
While he was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee (and blocking efforts to drive down drug costs), reports surfaced that Tauzin was discussing possible job opportunities within the drug industry. He resigned as committee chairman and later announced he would not seek re-election. By year's end, he was selected to lead PhRMA -- at a package reported to be about $2 million a year.
Tauzin insisted he never negotiated with PhRMA while he was committee chairman, but the non-profit consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen, decried his hiring as "another example of how public service is leading to private riches."
In Oklahoma, the list of former elected officials now registered as lobbyists is a Who's Who of state political history -- though not all morphed into lobbyists immediately after leaving office.
Among lobbyists registered this year with the State Ethics Commission: Dennis Adkins and Ron Peterson, both of whom represented Broken Arrow districts as recently as 2008; former Speaker Steve Lewis, who later served as U.S. attorney in Tulsa; former attorney General Larry Derryberry; former House Republican Leader Jim Dunlap; former Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan; and former House Floor Leader Greg Piatt.
The Revolving Door contributes to broad public cynicism that government is the playground of the well-to-do, an ever-corrupt world in which deep-pocketed special interests rule, legislators are their toadies and rank-and-file citizens are their serfs.
Consider the case of former Rep. Ron Peterson. The chairman of the House Insurance Committee, he became Public Enemy No. 1 to parents of autistic children -- vilified as an insurance industry lackey who single-handedly blocked efforts (known as "Nick's Law) to mandate coverage of autism treatment.
Peterson argued the mandate would increase health insurance premiums for all and possibly lead even more Oklahomans to go without coverage (currently about 600,000 have no health insurance). Studies in other states, however, suggested that mandating autism coverage had little or no effect on overall premiums.
Either way, Peterson had a perception problem. As a former insurance agent, he hardly could be viewed as an impartial arbiter. Worse, after opting not to seek re-election in 2008, he turned right around and became a registered lobbyist. His clients this year include health care providers CommunityCare and National American Insurance.
In politics, perception is reality. And the reality in Oklahoma politics is that Leftwich's two-year cooling off period is sorely needed to halt a Revolving Door that fuels public cynicism and dangles way too much temptation in front of elected officials anxious about their (financial) futures.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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