What does it mean when, year after year, no one in the Washington Legislature formally opposes a bill but the bill dies anyway? Such has been the fate of attempts to curb the unseemly and arguably unethical practice of public officials stepping down to take high-paying jobs as lobbyists.
This year’s effort is Senate Bill 5170, and Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, is once again pushing the boulder of reform up the impossible hill. At a Jan. 27 hearing on the bill, Sen. Sam Hunt even asked Carlyle, “Do you feel like Sisyphus?”
Under the bill, powerful public officials — lawmakers, statewide officials, chiefs of staff, agency heads, etc. — would not be allowed to register as lobbyists for a year after they leave their jobs. They could work for a lobbying firm as an adviser, but they could not return to the Capitol to lobby for a year, except under narrow exceptions.
As reforms go, this is about the least that could be done. But anything that slows the revolving door between public service and lobbying is welcome. About three dozen other states have cooling-off periods, many that are longer.
An analysis of state records by The Seattle Times and Northwest News Network found that nearly 20% of registered lobbyists in the state previously had worked in elected office or state government.
When state government insiders leave for a lobbying job, they have insights and information few others do. They understand how things really work in Olympia and how best to navigate legislative and regulatory processes.
Perhaps most valuable, they have connections. In the past, it was a Rolodex full of numbers. Now, it’s a contact list of people with whom someone has worked in the past. Personal cellphone numbers and maybe a favor owed make lobbying so much easier.
People change jobs all the time for more money or greater job satisfaction. But when we’re talking about democratic government, even if no one in power ever abuses their relationships when they become lobbyists, the perception among the public is that something untoward is happening, that wealthy industries are buying privileged access.
That taint worsens when a lawmaker champions a bill for an industry or company right before jumping ship.
So, what does the annual failure of the Legislature to pass even this modest reform mean? It means that sometimes lawmakers have no shame. They don’t want to oppose something with such obvious popular appeal, and they don’t want to jeopardize their own chance for a sweet lobbying job someday.
This year, lawmakers should help Carlyle push his boulder over the top.