A bill has been filed in the state General Assembly that would see the legislative body take a giant and disastrous step backward on ethics. Rep. Philip Johnson, R-Pegram, has introduced legislation to make it easier for lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers.
Specifically, the measure would allow employers of lobbyists to host receptions for standing committees in the House or Senate. The current law — which was passed in 2005 — bans receptions where food and alcohol are served unless all 132 state lawmakers are invited.
Johnson says his bill is designed to encourage citizens’ access to lawmakers and to keep down costs. We are not sure how being treated to lavish meals by lobbyists helps in granting citizens greater access to their representatives, but we can see how a free meal might help lawmakers stretch their per diems.
Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, said the proposed change in the law will allow lobbyists to concentrate their spending on specific committees handling legislation they are pushing for passage. In other words, it’s a return to a seedy system that has created nothing but embarrassing headlines for Tennessee.
Unfortunately, some Tennessee lawmakers have short memories when it comes to what can go wrong when government officials get too close to those paid to influence legislation.
In the late 1980s, federal officials conducted an investigation into widespread gambling and influence peddling on Capitol Hill. The probe, called “Operation Rocky Top,” ended with a number of state officials going to prison.
More than 10 years later, another FBI undercover operation called “Tennessee Waltz” also landed five lawmakers behind bars.
Back in 1989, the year the Rocky Top scandal broke, lawmakers routinely were wined and dined by lobbyists. In fact, lobbyists once held a weekly gathering at a Nashville nightspot where they picked up the tab for every willing lawmaker. These sessions were referred to as “Choir Practice.” Obviously, lobbyists hoped the gesture would result in lawmakers singing from their hymnal when it came time to vote on key issues.
There are nearly three registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill for every member of the General Assembly. Some of these are volunteers who lobby for nonprofit or public watchdog groups. Others work for public relations companies or law firms that represent a number of clients.
It’s no secret that a bulk of legislation introduced in the General Assembly each year is drafted by lobbyists. These bills are catered to address specific issues of concern to a number of special interests, ranging from business groups to health care providers.
After Rocky Top and the Tennessee Waltz investigations, Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation to stiffen ethics regulations for both themselves and lobbyists. These regulations have been aimed at curbing a culture of privilege that far too many elected officials believe they are entitled to.
As the Rocky Top and the Tennessee Waltz scandals have demonstrated, one bad apple is more than enough to cast suspicion — fair or not — on an entire governing body.