When a lawmaker decides to accept lobbyist gifts, he enters into a type of welfare system. Like all welfare systems, this tends to destroy the independence of the human spirit and makes the lawmaker dependent on the largess of others. Certainly not all lawmakers who take gifts lose their independence, but the practice of frequently accepting money and gifts from others is most unhealthy. It risks making the lawmaker’s judgment subject to the viewpoints of those who pay his bills and may tempt him to retaliate against those who dare to refuse his requests for funding.
Lawmakers also may give into the temptation to view their lobbyist-funded campaign war chests as a security blanket. The larger the collection of cash, the less likely it becomes that someone will run against them. And, if they do have an opponent, they won’t have to work hard to win re-election since they simply will smother the opposition by spending the money. Lobbyists and their employers provide the lawmaker with the assurance that he won’t “get stuck going door to door” talking to constituents during the heat of the summer in order to win re-election.
Things are changing!
It has become more likely in the past few years to walk into a legislator’s office with a sign on the door declaring that lobbyist-generated gifts are not accepted. In fact, a few weeks ago, out-of-state tourists noticed one of these signs on a senator’s office door and excitedly declared how much they wished lawmakers in their home state would adopt this same practice.
I think the Legislature has tended to become less reliant on special interests and lobbyists in the past few years and I believe there are two or three factors. The first was the action by the state Ethics Committee to significantly reduce the amount of gifts that can be given by each lobbyist. As I recall, that was due to the excellent work by Ethics Commissioner John Raley and Guthrie City Councilman John Wood who advocated for the effort.
The movement to abstain from lobbyist gift-giving has picked up momentum. An increasing number of lawmakers are doing the right thing and just saying no to this practice.
But one of the most important factors in the transition to a less dependent Legislature was the effort in 1990 by the people of Oklahoma to term limit legislators. This action, taken 22 years ago, is still paying massive dividends which few people probably realize are taking place.
At the time term limits were adopted, I believe the Oklahoma Legislature was dominated by a class of the politically elite. These powerful politicians enjoyed the spoils that were given to those who were in power for as long as they desired. Term limits brought an end to this special class of elitist politicians. They were term limited back to the real world.
However, there was a transitional generation of politicians who came into office just prior to term limits taking effect while the politically elite were still in office or had just given up office. I think some of these politicians had power envy. Some of them were Republicans who saw the spoils that went to the powerful Democrats who had been in power for many years. When these Republicans took the majority, I think they felt it was their turn to share in these privileges. These were the lawmakers who shake down lobbyists that I described in last week’s article. They saw nothing wrong with the thousands of dollars that changed hands between the special interests and legislators.
However, due to the reforms and the changing political environment, fewer and fewer lawmakers remain in office who are of this mindset. Public approval is not on the side of those who have the old point of view and the new wave of citizen legislators seems to realize this.
When I first arrived in the Legislature, I observed some of those who had been a part of the elite crowd just a few years earlier. They were bitter and angry as their chance at being a member of a politically elite governing class had been taken away from them by the people of Oklahoma and the new term limits law.
Now, all of those lawmakers are gone. And each year, members of the transitional class that witnessed and coveted that type of power are also leaving.
Each new election cycle provides the Legislature (and the citizens of Oklahoma) with a group of true citizen legislators who do not know there used to be an elite political class, and even fewer of those from the transitional group that witnessed and coveted that type of power. This can only be good for Oklahoma.
Term limits have proven very effective at restoring the balance of power back to the citizens. But ultimately there is one true answer to the problem of special interest influence. Court rulings have made it clear that lobbyists and those who hire them have the first amendment right to finance the campaigns of politicians. This means that the only real answer to the problem of special interest influence is to actively decrease the size of government. There is a reason why millions of dollars are invested in accessing lawmakers. Legislators control billions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of laws and regulations. It is only by scaling back the massive size of government that we take away the motivation for this investment by the special interests.
Smaller government is the ultimate answer for enabling true ethics reform and making it easier for lawmakers to abstain from lobbyist-funded welfare.
REP. JASON MURPHEY, R-Guthrie, represents House District 31, which encompasses all of Logan County and a portion of northern Edmond. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/JasonMurphey and Twitter.com/JWMurphey.