Washington generally ranks high among U.S. states for having strong laws against government corruption. But there is a gaping hole in those rules that continues to hurt our ethical reputation: Washington law still allows someone to retire from state service, then start lobbying for a corporation that does business with the state with no waiting period.
Here, many top state officials can be in closed-door meetings about state business on a Friday, then start cashing in on their connections and insider knowledge when they start work as a lobbyist on Monday.
This porous system creates questions about where our public leaders’ loyalties truly lie in the waning months of their public service. In effect, it creates situations ripe for conflicts of interest.
Lawmakers should finally pass legislation next year to put an end to this revolving door.
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State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, has worked with state Attorney General Bob Ferguson on such a measure for several years. Senate Bill 5033 would apply not only to state lawmakers, but also to top agency officials, stipulating that they can’t start working as lobbyists until a year after they exit public service. The one-year waiting period also would apply to senior staff working for the Legislature and the governor’s office.
This is a sensible change that would help boost trust in government.
“The risk is obvious that a client represented by a public-servant-turned-lobbyist will have, or will appear to have, an unfair advantage in petitioning the government,” wrote Vincent R. Johnson, a law professor at St. Mary’s University, in 2006. “This type of conduct poses a significant threat to the integrity of democratic institutions.”
Most states already mandate a one- or two-year break between when someone serves as a state legislator and when they can begin lobbying their former colleagues. In 26 states, legislators can’t work as lobbyists for a year after they leave state service, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 10 states, the “cooling-off” period must last two years.
In Washington, however, such restrictions are more limited. For the most part, they apply only if a former state official was directly involved in awarding a specific contract or grant that benefits their new employer.
By passing Carlyle and Ferguson’s proposal, Washington would be joining more than two-thirds of states that already recognize the revolving-door as a problem.
This will require lawmakers to voluntarily limit their future employment options, something they have proved reluctant to do. Carlyle and Ferguson’s bill has languished in the Legislature since 2015.
Lawmakers should finally do the right thing by closing this gap in our state’s ethics laws once and for all.