How the Game Gets Played in D.C. (Part 2)
Last week's column on lobbying and campaign finance in the District brought questions from a longtime area resident and reader: "Let me get this straight: 1. Lobbying is a constitutionally protected right -- as it should be. 2. Lobbyists ought not to make money. 3. Lobbyists should not contact government officials. Do I understand you correctly?"
The reader was told that he did not. Of course lobbyists can contact public officials and make money. But the column attempted to raise more salient issues. The intersection of lobbyists and city lawmakers could have a direct bearing on this year's contests for D.C. mayor, the city council and the presidency of the D.C. Board of Education.
The column drew attention to the lobbying activities of former D.C. Council member and former mayoral candidate John Ray and his relationships with members of the council, in particular Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3). The piece observed that Ray -- a lobbyist for several local business interests, as well as for Major League Baseball -- was slated to join Mayor Anthony Williams in throwing a campaign fundraiser for Patterson, who is making a run for chairmanship of the council.
What was not addressed in last week's outing was the extent of Ray's involvement with Orange, who also is a candidate for mayor.
As shown by Ray's lobbyist activity reports, his dealings with Orange, on issues ranging from baseball to health care and zoning matters, are more extensive by far than with any other council member. So be it. That's what lobbyists do: represent the interests of their clients on legislation and policy matters before members of the executive and legislative branches of government. And they get paid for it, too, if they can. No problem thus far.
It's the next step -- or the other link in that lobbyist-legislator chain -- that ought to catch the undivided attention of voters in the nation's capital.
When John Ray, who was also the general counsel for offshore gambling interests that tried every trick in the book to bring slot machines to the city, gives (as reported by The Post) $10,000 to Vincent Orange's exploratory committee for mayor -- and Ray's wife, Sarah, ponies up an additional $5,000 -- then citizens shouldn't be blamed for asking whether Orange's open door to Ray is heavily greased with greenbacks. The same might be asked the next time that fundraiser-lobbyist Ray comes calling on Patterson for a little "somethin' somethin'."
Citizens who want clean, open government free of domination by special interests have to watch the goings-on between D.C. lobbyists and D.C. officeholders (and office-seekers) like hawks.
The fact is that at the federal and local levels in the nation's capital, deep-pocketed influence seekers are having a field day. The purchase of legislators -- lock, stock and barrel -- is no fantasy: Witness ex-congressman and confessed felon Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California. And several who haven't been bought sure have been rented -- if only for a little while. The rules governing lobbying, both on Capitol Hill and in the D.C. government, make it easy for big-bucks interests, answerable only to their paymasters, to have their way without fear of being required to account for their actions.
It wasn't supposed to be this way in D.C. political life. I know. I worked for the Senate District Committee when the Home Rule Act passed in 1973. Recognizing that the city lacked campaign finance statutes to govern the first race for elected mayor and council, Congress enacted a law creating the board of elections and ethics and campaign finance rules that set strict -- and low -- limitations on campaign contributions. And with good reason. This was the time of Watergate, bags of cash and scuzzy national politics.
The last thing good-government advocates and the city's friends on Capitol Hill wanted to see was the corrosive effect of money being introduced into D.C. politics. Lower contribution limits, went the thinking at the time, would allow more candidates to enter races, prevent incumbents from sucking up all the money, and put the brakes on monied interests. Again, I know -- I had a major hand in drafting the legislation.
Reform had a short life. Within a few years, a succession of elected city councils, complaining that the low campaign contribution limits hampered fundraising, lowered the bar. Influence-seekers flush with cash dropped to their knees in abject thanksgiving. Which brings us to now.
There is simply no way that a resident of the District can know in a timely fashion how money is influencing elections for mayor, council or the board of education. Until a fuss was kicked up last year, the identities of contributors to a candidate's exploratory committee did not have to be disclosed.
To get an idea of how secretive the process had become -- and the reach of special interests -- consider that when Orange was pressured to disclose the identity of donors to his exploratory committee, he had to return $100,000 from contributors who refused to allow their names to be made public. Who were they? Orange told The Post they were Washington area business people.
Tracking the activities of lobbyists is equally difficult. Their reports to the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF), for example, are skimpy on details, usually posted well after the fact, and disclose as little as possible. Even then it takes a while before the short-staffed OCF can get around to posting the reports on its Web site so that citizens can see for themselves. As for the OCF actively analyzing the reports and checking them for accuracy -- I'd rather rely on the Three Blind Mice.
Of course, that sad state of affairs only warms the cockles of a politician's and a hustler's heart. But it's a thumb in the eye of democratic government.
Writing on this page on Monday, Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, offered some suggestions for getting a handle on what he called "the interlocking systems of campaign finance, lobbying and policymaking" in Congress, where conflicts of interest abound and oversight is myopic.
His proposals, which the District should adopt for itself:
1. Require lobbyists to disclose weekly, online, which members (in this case, council members) they contributed to and met with, which staff members they lobbied and what issues were discussed.
2. Require lobbyists to sign disclosure forms and face serious criminal penalties for false and inaccurate statements.
3. Prohibit lobbying by former council members, their staffs and executive branch officials for four years.
4. Ban campaign contributions, gifts and travel from lobbyists to council members, their staff, office-seekers and executive branch officials.
But guess what: That legislation would have to pass through the council's government affairs committee. Its chairman? Vincent Orange.