In Olympia, lobbyists grab the tab – and the connection

The News TribuneMay 5, 2013 

Thank heaven for public disclosure. Without it, Washingtonians might not know how their lawmakers avoid starvation in the middle of a legislative session.

They do get hungry, as evidenced by the $200,000 lobbyists spent this year wining, dining and entertaining them after exhausting days of committee hearings and floor votes. With a special session coming up, lobbyists and legislators alike will be licking their chops for more.

There’s nothing wrong with lobbying per se. Citizens have every right to let officials know what they want from the Legislature. In fact, political speech and petitioning the government are guaranteed by First Amendment.

But it can be unseemly and suspicious when – as Austin Jenkins of Northwest News Network reported last week – lawmakers are eating steak with special interest reps by night while the Legislature’s making sausage by day.

The restaurant tab isn’t really the point. It reflects coziness more than it creates it.

One of Olympia’s top lobbyists, Steve Gano of Lakewood, is disarmingly honest about the game. The dinners, he told Jenkins, are about “getting to know folks on a one-to-one basis.”

That translates into access, a precious commodity when laws are being shaped.

All citizens have a right to some form of access to their elected officials, be it only phone messages left with staff members. Not all forms of access are created equal, though. Relaxed, generous face time at posh restaurants tends to be expensive for a reason: Corporations, unions and other interest groups know that it pays off.

In Washington – as opposed to, say, Illinois – this is rarely a matter of outright bribery or venality. It’s about connection. A lawmaker who understands the intricacies of your issue is more likely to sympathize and help you – or at least not hurt you – when the bill gets marked up.

That’s not dishonesty, but it is privilege. It’s hard to imagine that advocates of housing vouchers for the poor, or subsistence payments for the disabled, are getting as much opportunity to chat at length with state policymakers over glasses of wine.

Dinners during session are not the only way to reach lawmakers. There are also dinners and entertainment the rest of the year. Jenkins reports that lobbyists in this state often spend more than $3,400 per legislator on average over a 12-month period.

Some lawmakers may actually get a little hungry at times on their rather lean $90-a-day per diems. But the well-heeled organizations that professional lobbyists typically represent are even hungrier to feed them.

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