Our democracy is strongest when average, middle-class people trust their elected representatives and have a voice.
When regular folks – loggers and waitresses, farmers and nurses – read stories in the paper about lobbyists buying lawmakers free dinners, they wonder what’s really going on. They wonder how much access and sway lobbyists have in Olympia, compared to average citizens.
That notion was only made worse by an investigation by the Associated Press and public radio. Just during the first four months of 2013, the top 50 lobbyists spent $65,000 on free meals.
I’m not making that up: $65,000.
It took months of digging by reporters to dig that up, because all those records only exist on paper.
Now, lawmakers and lobbyists say these free lunches and dinners don’t buy votes. I take them at their word.
But even if those free meals don’t truly affect legislation, they affect how people back home see our democracy. It looks wrong.
That perception hurts our democracy. It makes average people feel like they don’t really have a chance, that whatever they say will get drowned out by lobbyists taking lawmakers out to steak dinner that night.
And I don’t blame the lobbyists for doing this. It’s their profession, and they’re playing by the rules. Free meals and gifts are apparently effective in their eyes. Believe me, the lobbyists wouldn’t buy steak dinners and give gifts to lawmakers if they thought it was a waste of money.
So let’s change the rules and clean it up. The added benefit is that the public perception of professional lobbyists would improve as well, because they are actually an integral part of the legislative process.
In the old days, there were no limits. Lobbyists could, and did, bring cases of wine or whiskey to lawmaker offices in the morning.
The first reform was to shine a light on what was happening, to make lobbyists report their spending so the press and public could know.
Another major reform just happened, with the state’s ethics watchdog enacting a limit of 12 free meals per year for each lawmaker.
Those were good first steps.
Yet people are right to think that average citizens and nonprofits, trying to advocate for kids and the disabled, are at a disadvantage compared to lobbyists with a budget for entertaining lawmakers.
Average people and community activists don’t have an expense account. They can’t take seven lawmakers out to the nicest restaurant in Olympia every Wednesday for dinner and drinks.
And even if people swear those dinners don’t really matter, the perception to folks back home matters. A lot. It hurts our democracy.
Let’s truly fix that perception and restore faith in our democracy by ending free meals and gifts. Period. That’s the cleanest, simplest answer.
That’s why I introduced House Bill 1083, which would ban free meals and gifts to lawmakers.
This reform wouldn’t hurt lawmakers, not even ones who are working jobs on the side to pay the bills. There are young lawmakers with young children, and it’s true they don’t make a giant salary.
This reform wouldn’t hurt them. That’s because every lawmaker gets expense money – per diem – while the House and Senate are in session. Not every lawmaker takes that per diem, yet it’s there if you need it: for gas, to rent an apartment if you live far away from Olympia and for meals.
That expense money is more than enough for lawmakers to buy their own breakfast, lunch and dinner.
More importantly, banning free meals and gifts would buy us something priceless: more faith in our democracy among our friends and neighbors back home.
State Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, is a retired police officer. He chairs the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming.