Some lobbyists receiving benefits are precisely those who push for austerity.
For a large number of state lobbyists, a full state pension is part of the benefits package. Despite being employees of private organizations and drawing private salaries — sometimes in excess of any state employee’s — in at least 20 states, hundreds receive state-paid retirement benefits, an Associated Press investigation revealed Sunday.
The states that have such provisions include Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Washington State. Enacted on the premise that some lobbyists serve the government and the public, many of the private lobbyists that receive public pensions indeed are representatives of counties, cities and school board associations.
Some of these lobbyists receive state health care benefits, as well.
“It’s a technical truism that lobbying groups are not supposed to be in the system,” said former New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Mount Pleasant). “But what they are doing is carrying out missions assigned to them by public officials in the public interest as they understand it.”
The argument concerning these pensions is more a question of style over function. In New York state, for example, fewer than 120 of the 633,100 in the state’s employee pension system are private lobbyists. However, the issue poses a question of fairness as an increasing number of states and municipalities struggle to maintain their retirement funds.
“It’s clear that there’s a big problem with hypocrisy when these lobbyists have been pushing austerity and benefit cuts for other government workers while they themselves enjoy solid state pensions,” said Michael Kink of the Strong Economy for All Coalition. “‘Do as I say, not as I do’ seems to be their approach on retirement cuts.”
“Workers who have faced cuts in pay and pensioners have a right to be angry — as do voters,” he added.
Questions of fairness
A growing number of states, however, are questioning the practice. Based on the argument that these lobbyists, as employees of private entities, receive no public oversight of their actions, can lobby in opposition to the taxpayers’ will and are free to receive private-sector pay, many states are pushing to stop public pensions for private employees.
“It’s a question of, ‘Why are we providing government pensions to these private organizations?'” said Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook).
Stephen Acquario, executive director and general counsel of the New York State Association of Counties — who, as a $204,000-per-year lobbyist to the New York State Legislature, receives a full state pension — argues that a state pension makes it easier to hire former state employees. “We want the people that work in local governments to continue to be part of the solution,” he said. “We represent the same taxpayers.”
Most government pensions are calculated as a percentage of an employee’s last rate of pay. If a private lobbyist retires with a public pension with an ending salary larger than any state employee — Acquario, for example, makes more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D – N.Y.) $179,000-a-year salary — the lobbyist will retire with a larger pension than any other employee.
“There is liability for taxpayers,” said Keith Brainard, research director of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. “Providing a pension benefit involves some amount of risk for the state and when you provide access to employees of entities that are not in control of the state.”
In New York, benefits for future government hires already have been reduced and a proposed 401(k) savings program is being looked at to replace the state’s pension system. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) signed legislation that gave pensions only to full-time state and local employees, but allowed those already drawing pensions to continue to do so. The New York state constitution has a similar grandfather clause.
The legislator as lobbyist
This situation represents an unsettling trend in politics. For many politicians, the line between legislator and lobbyist is blurred as many pursue lobbying after the end of their political career.
“I think the job of a lobbyist is mainly an informational, educational role,” said former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), the onetime House majority leader and current president of Gephardt Government Affairs, a lobbying firm. “Any individual should be able to access their legislator and give them information — that’s the nature of democracy. Being able to do that doesn’t mean you have undue influence or are telling someone how to vote. All you’re doing is trying to get information to people who may not have it. Then, they have to make the judgment.”
Lobbying in the United States is big business. In 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, $3.31 billion were spent to lobby Washington, and in 2006, the average cost to lobby a state legislator was about $200,000. Increasingly, legislators and high-ranking civil servants seek to “cash out” upon leaving public office by taking lobbyist positions — which can result in millions of dollars in pay.
At least 188 corporations and special interest groups, including FedEx, Comcast and General Motors, have hired at least two former members of Congress to lobby the federal government in 2012. Of those, 45 hired at least three, 17 hired at least four. Due to the familiarity former legislators have with current legislators, this offers a degree of accommodation other lobbyist do not have.
“They will at least see you and meet with you, in most cases,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who served in Congress from 1979 to 2005 and is now a lobbyist for Polsinelli Shughart. “If a former member called me when I was in Congress, I would see them. It’s a courtesy.”
While Congress has enacted laws requiring members to discuss future employment negotiations with the Ethics Committee, these disclosures are sealed to the public and legislators, in general, are not required to publicly disclose discussions on potential employment opportunities while they are still in office. In theory, a legislator can agree to trade a vote on an upcoming issue for a high-paying lobbyist job later.
This creates situations in which conflicts of interest are rampant. For example, a 2006 Center for Public Integrity report showed that under Gov. Rick Perry (R), Texas had the most lawmakers-turned-lobbyist of any state and a large number of lobbyist-turned-administration officials — including a former chief of staff to the governor.
“The system in Texas cannot be gamed the way it is in Congress. Unlike Congress, Texas lawmakers are part time, we don’t have earmarks, and we must have a balanced budget, so we can only spend what we take in,” said Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier in defense of the Texas State Legislature. “A big part of the problem in Congress will be solved by cutting congressional pay, making them part time and allowing them to have real jobs back in the district. But congressional lobbying restrictions must be severely tightened to regain the public’s trust.”
Programs that blur the lines between lobbyist and legislator contribute indeed, in ways both explicit and implicit, to the loss in public trust. Ultimately, when it comes to defining fairness in the political system, it must be asked: What truly motivates the politicians?
“While the process of public officials going to work for lobbying firms is often called the ‘revolving door,’ we think this issue deserves more emphasis and urgency,” wrote the Republic Report in their call for retiring Congress members to disclose job negotiations. “With members of Congress secretly manipulating the laws we must all live under, and then receiving lavish rewards, so they can live lavish lifestyles, we call that Backdoor Bribery.”