Big-money: the bane of American politics

According to the New York Times, industry lobbyists with deep pockets are increasing their focus on state attorneys general, and our own Bob Ferguson is among those being pressured.

The Times reports that Brian T. Moran, a lobbyist for T-Mobile (and former deputy attorney general here in Washington), drafted a letter for Bob Ferguson’s signature to help prevent T-Mobile’s competitors from dominating the available wireless spectrum. With apparently minor changes, Ferguson signed and mailed the letter.

In the same story, the NY Times reports that last year, when 33 states, including Washington, were investigating 5-Hour Energy for false claims and deceptive advertising, Bob Ferguson called them to ask for a campaign contribution.

This is a sticky, messy business. Nothing Ferguson has done is illegal, or even clearly unethical. He is, in fact, regarded as an effective and reasonable elected leader. Still, there is a creepiness factor in these reports that’s hard to ignore.

Attorneys general are the public’s lawyers, but they are also politicians – often with ambitions to become governors. Their job is to focus on the law, but to get that job, they have to focus on raising money and winning votes. In an ever more partisan political landscape where campaign price tags are rising a zillion times more than the rate of inflation, that’s hard work.

Perhaps it’s a romantic fantasy to think that our Attorney General should have a special sensitivity to perceived conflicts of interests that other elected officials don’t have, or to hope he would stay above the partisan fray. In fact, there’s no perhaps about it.

But the only proposed remedy to this problem – the passage of “revolving door” legislation to prevent people who leave public office from becoming lobbyists for a period of a year or two – is an even more fulsome romantic fantasy.

This remedy is being proposed by state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, who plans to introduce a bill in January that mimics a federal revolving door law. It bothered Carlyle that Rob McKenna, our previous attorney general, was lobbying his successor within months of leaving office.

The idea of revolving door bills is that a former official’s or legislator’s influence is greatest when they are newly out of office, and that such influence fades with time. That may be true, but a mere year or two won’t make much difference, and at the federal level, people have already found away to game the law.

There is an entire industry of “strategic consultants” in our nation’s capital staffed by federal officials and congresspeople waiting out the year or two of the federal version of revolving door legislation. They simply rely on someone else to carry out their lobbying strategies.

And revolving door legislation doesn’t touch the legion of lobbyists and campaign contributors who represent big-money interests but have never been elected themselves. Big money (and a Supreme Court decision that equates money and speech) are the bane of American politics. Former elected officials working as lobbyists are just fleas on that elephant in the room.