Why We Should Care About the Mischief of Goodies

It’s almost become a rite of spring that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch brings forth an article soon after the close of the legislative session detailing the abundance of lobbyist gifts on Missouri legislators.  Such articles practically write themselves thanks to public disclosure rules via the Missouri Ethics Commission.  Comb through the database. Underscore some of the more outrageous gift giving.  Move on.

Oh, some readers might get upset, but not enough.  Most have grown accustomed to the idea that perks and goodies will end up in the hands of our representatives. It’s part of the process.  It’s always been there and it isn’t going away.  Most depressing, however, is the idea that so many of us have convinced ourselves that since it’s so engrained, it probably isn’t that big of a deal.

It is.  Here’s why:

Democracies and republics rely on the people having influence on our decision makers.  For individuals to have influence, they must have some level of trust in the process.  Our acceptance of lobbyist largesse in the process means that we accept the special relationships that these gifts are looking to buy.  And if, by definition, special relationships are exclusive, then we are accepting a government run by exclusive bonds; bonds absent between most of us and most of our leaders.

Gone is any semblance of a democracy or a republic.  In its place is an oligarchy – rule only by those with financial means.

I worked for a year in Jefferson City.  I was a researcher for a couple of Senate committees.  During the legislative session there was hardly a day that went by when some special interest group didn’t hold a large function in the capitol for the legislators and their staff.  It’s been years but I can still smell the pork steaks!

Lobbyists are salesmen.  They’re selling their group’s message.  To sell an idea, they must forge a relationship.  Making a good argument isn’t evidently enough.  To get their attention to even make the argument they must buy their way in.  Goodies like a free lunch or dinner, baseball or football tickets, or expensive golf outings are some of the more potent weapons of choice.   And they’re weapons most of us can’t even imagine having at our disposal.

I’ve confronted legislators about this.  Their response is usually very defensive and goes something like this: “Do you really think I’d change my vote for a free lunch or Cardinals tickets?  You must have a very low opinion of me if you think that.”

Most legislators wouldn’t change their vote for a pork steak.  I get that.  But what confounds me is that this defense suggests a very bizarre (naïve?) opinion of what these lobbyists are looking to do!  Buy your vote for a pork steak?  No.  Improve their relationship with you by giving you a bag of goodies?  Forge a bond with you over some barbecue?  Bend your ear as they’re sitting next to you at Busch Stadium?  Yes. Yes.  And yes.

Let’s not be ridiculous here.  Humans (even legislators) are influenced by those with which they associate.  And if they’re only associating with a select – well financed few, our democracy will naturally suffer.

James Madison wrote in Federalist #10 about the “mischief of faction.”  Groups in a political systems are natural and their spread cannot be curtailed.   Lobbying, after all, is protected in the First Amendment.  The evil ways of the lobbyist, however, needs to be regulated if we want anything resembling a democracy.   Allowing the practice of gift giving sends the message that we don’t care about the “mischief” that faction can bring.  In fact, by allowing lobbyists to buy their way into these relationships with government we are putting our stamp of approval on the mischief.

The resulting collapse in our trust in government is inevitable.

We Need a Total Ban

Political scientist Burdett Loomis supports what he calls a strict “no cup of coffee” rule.  Legislatures should adopt a policy that bars gifts of any size “from lobbyists and others who come in contact with lawmakers.”  I agree.

Unfortunately, Missouri still allows the practice.  Sure, there are some limits and most gifts need to be disclosed to the public.  But should that make us feel any better?  Gifts are meant to influence the decision maker in some way.  Is that the same as a bribe?  At best, it sounds like a distinction without a difference.

One Last Point

All elected officials take some kind of oath of office.  Here is what Missouri legislators have been reciting with their hands on the Bible since 1845:

“I do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will support the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Missouri, and faithfully perform the duties of my office, and that I will not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or nonperformance of any act or duty pertaining to my office, other than the compensation allowed by law.”  (emphasis added)

Ask yourself why the lobbyist is buying that cup of coffee.   Why are they providing the legislator those concert tickets?  Why are they wining and dining them?   Clearly, part of the reason must pertain to the office that the representative holds.

The writers of our great state constitution understood something that too many of us don’t.  Or if we did understand it we’ve forgotten it.  Since 1845 thousands of men and women have sworn to God this oath then proceeded to ignore it – or, more likely, rationalized the hell out of it to allow them to continue to reap the benefits of office.

Breaking an oath to a greater being doesn’t seem to bother them.  To break them of this corruption, the people of Missouri must demand it.