More lobbyists than ever are swarming through state legislatures, spending more money than ever to influence lawmakers.
But a 50-state look at lobbyists by the Associated Press found that few states effectively monitor their activities. Rules regulating lobbyists are riddled with loopholes, and the legislators who make those rules receive lobbyists' campaign contributions, meals and gifts.
In most states it is virtually impossible to know how much lobbyists are spending and which legislators they spend it on.
"Money buys access, and access buys a higher degree of success," said Chuck Sauvage of the Washington state branch of Common Cause, which itself lobbies for more accountability by those who make and influence legislation.
"We're in danger of seeing government of the special interests, by the special interests and for the special interests."
The growth in the number of lobbyists comes at a time when the responsibility for funding social welfare programs is shifting from Congress to the states, and legislatures are tackling such complex issues as the environment, abortion, gun control, smoking restrictions and car insurance.
Pick any aspect of life and there is apt to be a lobbyist for or against it.
Lobbyists represent baby doctors and undertakers; insurers and the lawyers who sue for claims; environmentalists and companies that bury toxic waste; gun control groups and the National Rifle Assn.; health care providers and tobacco and liquor interests; churches and casinos; corporations and unions; farmers and bankers; the media and local governments.
Lobbyists persuade lawmakers to pass, kill or amend laws to benefit the special interest that hired them. They have a constitutional right to air their side, and they are an important source of analysis and expertise for understaffed legislatures that were created as citizen assemblies.
Lobbyists get little mention in civics lessons. But leaving out lobbyists from the way a bill becomes a law is like having a road map with only interstate highways. They are the access ramps, back roads, shortcuts, cutoffs and detours.
Lobbyists outnumber lawmakers nearly 6 to 1. The AP survey found more than 42,500 registered lobbyists at state capitols, an increase of 20% from the Council of State Government's registry four years ago when Ronald Reagan was in office.
"That new federalism Mr. Reagan gave us didn't necessarily mean less government; it sort of meant a change of address," said Roland Luedtke, a former lawmaker and lieutenant governor in Nebraska.
Lawmakers insist that they do not sell votes and lobbyists say they do not buy them. Indeed, examples of outright bribery are rare, but critics say the system is so ambiguous that wrongdoing becomes a matter of perception.
"It's ripe for abuse. There's the potential for corruption and undue influence," said Kirby Hendee, a retired lobbyist and former state senator in Wisconsin. "People have got to get mad. Somebody's stealing the heart of government, and they don't seem excited about it."
Some point to campaign contributions as the most corrosive influence.
"It's a form of bribery. It's not cash under the table, but it's the equivalent of cash," said Florida Sen. Tom Brown. "The public perception is that if you take things you're obligated to them. It's patently absurd to think otherwise."
What do the persuaders get for their money?
"Access. It's access, the kind of access the typical voter doesn't have," said Pennsylvania Rep. Allen Kukovich. "If they get on the phone or make an appointment, snap, they want to get in there. They want your ear. This is America. Money talks. Money buys access.
"I can't honestly say anyone's for sale. I think there are some members who are for lease," Kukovich said. "I don't think lobbyists are bad. The problem is, I think, they have too much influence."
How much lobbyists spend and how they spend it causes the most alarm among those who think that special interests dominate legislatures.
For example, the day after lobbyists for Alamo Rent A Car treated 27 members of Florida's House Rules Committee to a dinner of steak, red snapper and conch chowder last year, the panel voted Alamo's way and killed a proposal to limit how much rental car companies charge for collision damage waivers.
This year, Florida-based Alamo won a victory in the House Insurance Committee. It rejected a bill that would have forced car companies to charge less for refueling cars.
Before the vote, at least 12 of the 17 lawmakers on the panel got $9,000 in campaign contributions--all legal--from rental-car interests. Chairman Peter Deutsch got $1,000 each from Alamo and Hertz, which were on opposing sides.
Alamo also provided free use of a Buick for four days to Rep. Steve Geller, chairman of the House Insurance subcommittee, who voted Alamo's way. Geller said accepting the car was a misunderstanding and he paid for it after his using it became public.
Car companies and lawmakers said no votes were bought or sold, but Kevin Bloom of the Florida Consumer Action Network said the two actions were revealing.
"It's one example of special interests like Alamo using affluence to influence the outcome of legislative matters," Bloom said. "There's no way you can take gifts, or favors or anything of value and not be influenced."
The AP examination of lobbyists found a hodgepodge of laws regulating them and their spending activities. Campaign contributions and gifts that are perfectly legal in some states would bring criminal censure in others. Most of the laws were written by lawmakers; only a handful of states have regulations enacted by voters.
Four states don't require lobbyists to report what they spend trying to influence legislators. Lobbyists in the other states rarely have to identify the lawmakers they wine and dine or give gifts to.
State governments spend little to monitor lobbying, ranging from about $750,000 in California to an estimated $400 in Oklahoma. Twenty-three states devote only one or a part-time staffer to oversight.
A century ago, Massachusetts made the first attempt at making special interests accountable by requiring a detailed statement of all expenses and registration of those working for special interests.
Only one state, Wisconsin, forbids lawmakers from accepting a gift, trip, meal, or anything of value--even a cup of coffee--from a lobbyist. But even that state allows special interests to make campaign contributions.
All states require lobbyists to register, but four--Georgia, Louisiana, Utah and Wyoming--don't require any reports on what they spend. The rules in most of the rest are written so that lobbyists generally can report only their overall spending and don't have to identify individual legislators on whom money is spent.
Of the 46 states that require some degree of reporting of lobbyists' spending, 29 do not audit the reports for accuracy and merely try to make sure the reports are filed on time. Twenty-eight of the 46 conducted no investigations of the previous reporting period.
In a typical comment, McDonald T. Coker, assistant director of Delaware's Legislative Council, said of his state's law: "There is no accounting system. . . . The law is so loose you couldn't catch anyone if you wanted to."
Almost as revealing as what some lobbyists report is what they don't.
Last year, California had an estimated $90 million reported spent by lobbyists.
But in a loophole-ridden state like Pennsylvania, lobbyists as a group reported spending $362,000. That's a fraction of what was reported in smaller states like Connecticut, Montana, Mississippi, Hawaii, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas. The top lobbyist in at least five states reported spending more than was reported by Pennsylvania's 799 lobbyists combined.
Many former elected officials have found second careers as lobbyists; among ex-governors representing special interest groups are Marvin Mandel of Maryland and Anthony Earl and Martin Schreiber of Wisconsin.
Some of the best-paid lobbyists make six-figure incomes that are several times greater than even the highest-paid legislators. In Maryland, for instance, lobbyist Bruce Bereano got more than $1 million in fees from 53 clients in 1989.
The persuaders, not surprisingly, aren't in favor of more reporting.
"Requiring a lobbyist to report doesn't make them honest or dishonest. No lobbyist is going to report doing something illegal," said Hobson Waits, a lobbyist for the Electric Power Assn. of Mississippi Inc.
Watchdogs agree, but they say the point is the public interest would be best served if special interests reported in detail what they do to influence legislators.
"We've cut the average citizen out of the process," said Barry Kauffman of Pennsylvania Common Cause.
"It's the contemporary golden rule: Those with the gold make the rules," Kauffman said. "People are turned off. They've passed apathy and gone to alienation. It's not their system anymore."
GIFT LIMITS Wisconsin is the only state that bars legislators from accepting gifts, and only 14 other states put limits on the value of gifts that lawmakers may accept. Here are those states and the limits:
* Alaska: $50 per gift.
* California: $10 per month.
* Iowa: $50 per gift.
* Kansas: $100 per gift.
* Kentucky: $200 over three years.
* Louisiana: no gifts allowed except tickets to sports events, which are limited to $50 per event and $300 per year.
* Maryland: only "nominal" gifts allowed.
* Massachusetts: $50 per gift.
* Michigan: $35 per month.
* Nebraska: $25 per gift.
* Nevada: $100 per year.
* New York: $75 per gift.
* Oregon: $100 per year.
* West Virginia: $100 per gift.
Source: Associated Press ENTERTAINMENT LIMITS Wisconsin is the only state that does not permit lawmakers to let anyone pay for their meals or drinks. One state--California--has rules that say lobbyists should file reports listing any legislator they take out for dinner or drinks.
Thirty-one other states have spending "thresholds" above which lobbyists must identify the legislator on whom entertainment money is spent, although the limits often are high enough that lobbyists rarely have to say who they have entertained. Seventeen states have no requirements that lobbyists ever identify legislators who are wined and dined.
Here are the states with thresholds:
* Arizona: $25 per meal, per issue discussed.
* Arkansas: $25 per meal.
* Colorado: $50 over a year.
* Connecticut: $50 per meal.
* Delaware: $50 per day.
* Hawaii: $25 per meal, or $150 over six months.
* Idaho: $50 per meal.
* Illinois: $25 per meal.
* Indiana: $100 per meal, or $500 over a year.
* Maine: $25 over a month.
* Maryland: $75 per year per lobbying client, counting only meals that cost more than $15.
* Massachusetts: $35 per meal.
* Michigan: $35 per month, $275 over first six months, or $275 over full year.
* Minnesota: $50 per meal.
* Mississippi: $25 per meal.
* Montana: $25 per meal.
* Nebraska: $25 over a month.
* New Jersey: $25 per day, or $200 over a year, but only if specific bills discussed.
* New Mexico: $50 per meal.
* New York: $75 per meal.
* North Carolina: $25 per meal.
* North Dakota: $25 per meal.
* Ohio: $150 per meal.
* Oklahoma: $39.30 per meal, or $315 over a year.
* Oregon: $43 per meal.
* Pennsylvania: $150 over six months.
* Rhode Island: $25 per meal.
* Tennessee: $50 over a week, or $500 over six months.
* Vermont: $5 per meal.
* Washington: $25 per meal.
* West Virginia: $125 over a year, with reporting categories in five increments of $25 each.
Source: Associated Press