Last year, we authored an article discussing the conflict of political consultants as registered lobbyists in Pennsylvania—those providing services to the same lawmakers they seek to lobby.
Despite the mostly positive feedback, the legislative process in the commonwealth moves slowly on issues that impact the business of politics and so, a year later, no meaningful action has occurred on the legislation discussed or introduced on the topic. We remain hopeful that these issues will be a priority in the next legislative session.
As this year’s presidential election illustrates, the perception of government and elected officials amongst the public may be at its lowest point. Both federal and state elected officials collectively endure low ratings and remain the target of public criticism and dissatisfaction. Many elected officials are well intentioned and whole-heartedly committed to their constituents. However, the perceived arrogance and entitlement pervading Washington and Harrisburg alike reveal a woefully unbalanced system.
Perhaps now is the ideal time for serious introspection and constructive self-criticism. Society, admit it or not, comprises the haves and the have nots; those in power reside in the obvious. Arrogance and entitlement led to recent investigations and prosecutions against various members of the General Assembly, an attorney general and state treasurers. Conflicts of interest permeate government operations and the public largely ignores it.
On any given day when the Pennsylvania General Assembly is in voting session, Harrisburg is flooded with a small army of “suits” bustling about downtown. The business of political fundraising and the proximity of lawmakers to viable fundraising sources provide an exceptional casting opportunity to snag lobbyists, interest groups and each other in a quest to fund their political action committees (PACs) and, in some cases, their own elections. In Pennsylvania, this has become a “cost of doing business” in the lobbying community.
To be fair, getting elected is expensive and message delivery is vital. Full-color mailers, television and radio advertisements, door hangers, stickers, yard signs, billboards and the like are not cheap. To compete, many times a candidate will hire someone who knows how to best maximize available resources, a political consultant. Getting money for all this is no easy task either. It can be full-time work, so candidates better hire a fundraiser to help coordinate donors back in the district and in the target-rich environment of Harrisburg—full of lobbyists and special interests willing to help fill the coffers.
During the course of 2016, the General Assembly scheduled 65 House session days and 54 Senate session days, days when the 253 members traveled to Harrisburg to deliberate, subsequently act upon legislation and conduct the business that the citizens of Pennsylvania elected, and entrusted, them to do.
Nevertheless, fundraisers have become a regular part of session days in Harrisburg. Keep in mind: The legislature travels to Harrisburg to focus on the people’s business and not to raise monies for their own campaigns. Their time in the Capitol is funded by taxpayers in the interest of those taxpayers and the commonwealth. To equalize the travel for some lawmakers, per diems on top of salaries, and, in some cases, additional expenses, are allowed so lawmakers may address the plethora of challenging issues facing the state. The increasing perception in Harrisburg and Washington is that discussions of issues and policy are pushed aside for the business of fundraising, especially during election years.
One solution to prevent distractions during legislative session days would be to change the campaign finance laws to prohibit PAC events during those session days. Why, you might ask? Pretty simple, according to the Maryland Joint Legislative Committee on Ethics Advisory Commission from March 13, 1989:
“The purpose (of Section 13-235 of the Election Law Article) is to curtail corruption or the appearance of corruption by eliminating financial quid pro quo contributions in return for a vote on legislation during the regular session of the General Assembly.”
This proposal removes intimations of impropriety between legislative action and fundraising without an outright prohibition of fundraising in Harrisburg. Events currently held in legislative districts routinely draw many from Harrisburg and will continue to do so, muting the perceived financial impact on fundraising.
Second, focus on how monies are raised and how funds are reported. Demand stringent penalties for ethics violations and resources for the State Ethics Commission to investigate elected officials, lobbyists, fundraisers and political consultants. Enable the commission to enforce a strengthened law. Ignorance of the law is not the issue; beguiling and complacency in a broken system is.
Several pieces of legislation were proposed this session to address related ethical dilemmas, none specifically on the timing of fundraisers, mind you, and none saw the governor’s desk. Among the many challenges required to restore the image of government, the prohibition of fundraisers on session days lacks complication and addresses part of the perception of elected, governmental and political professionals. Will we see action on these proposals in the next session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly? Only time will tell.
The authors are partners and associates with Greenlee Partners, a community publisher of TheBurg.