For far too long, the Washington Legislature has turned a blind eye to the perennial problem of revolving-door lobbying. Unlike in a majority of other states, a high government official in Olympia is free to shift directly from public service into a private-sector lobbying job.
This has a long-recognized risk of corruption. High-powered private concerns are free to dangle big paychecks to key public servants in exchange for favorable policy decisions. And once the official cashes out of government, they have the alliances and institutional savvy to instantly become persuasive at convincing their former colleagues in government to move an industry’s preferred way.
A new analysis of lobbyist records by The Seattle Times and Northwest News Network has identified how intertwined the lines of corporate influence and government service have become. Of about 800 registered lobbyists, almost 20% previously worked in state government or elected office.
That isn’t inherently bad. Government workers have the right to move to private jobs and make better salaries. However, it’s wrong that they should be free to cash in immediately upon departing state government. Too many ethical pitfalls lie that way to ignore any longer. Washington’s Legislature should follow the lead of at least 33 other states and pass legislation early in 2021 to create a cooling-off period between government service and becoming a lobbyist.
In recent years alone, the pitfalls are easy to spot. A state senator returned to an Amazon job after a session in which he sponsored a bill that could benefit the tech company. Gov. Jay Inslee’s former commerce director stepped down in 2019 for a lobbying role that, in 2020, had him pitching the governor’s office on COVID-19 supplies and policy.
That’s the kind of behavior that craters public faith in governance. There ought to be a law. Yet bills to enact one die nearly every year in the Legislature without a floor vote.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who has repeatedly sponsored legislation to create a waiting period before a top official can become a lobbyist, said even a shorter wait would create a “healthy boundary” to ensure government is ethically run.
“Even one year” would help, he told this editorial board. “I’m not going to be a purist on this.”
He said he plans to file yet another cooling-off period bill in the coming session. Whether his latest version or another lawmaker’s moves forward early, chamber leaders should advance this good-government idea for an open vote to finally become state law.