Legislators and lobbyists bonding over mai tais on Maui

I got into the news business covering the Washington Legislature as a student intern for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. In those days, lobbyists would host frequent fundraising events for key lawmakers during the legislative session and there was always lots of free food. Because I was paid barely enough to cover a dorm-type room and really cheap meals, I dropped by as many of these parties as I could and I’d head straight for the buffet. I didn’t think about the ethics of it at the time; I was just hungry.

The practice of special interests raising money for legislators while they were in the midst of deliberating legislation that affected those same interests was banned in Washington long ago, part of a general trend of elected officials trying to eliminate the appearance of being bought off by lobbyists. But, in this second decade of the 21stcentury, there are still glaring examples of lawmakers getting cozy with the folks who are paid to influence them.

A new case in point: A couple dozen California legislators have signed up for conferences at fancy resorts on the island of Maui that are subsidized by special interest groups including pharmaceutical companies, tobacco distributors, cable operators, public employee unions and oil corporations. 

According to an article by Los Angeles Times reporter Patrick McGreevy, legislators are getting their $350-a-night rooms paid for, and that’s just a start. These are annual events and, last year, an average of $2,500 in expenses was covered for each lawmaker. A very innocently named organization picked up that tab -- the Independent Voter Project. But guess where the group gets all its money: from Occidental Petroleum, the Western State Petroleum Assn., Eli Lilly, the state prison guards union and many other groups with a vested interest in the bills that get passed or killed in Sacramento.


Defenders of the Maui gatherings say the lawmakers need to escape the partisan rancor of the state capital and go someplace nice where they can build camaraderie and kick around important ideas. A statement issued on behalf of the Republican leader of the Assembly said the junket gives legislators of both parties a chance to talk with each other and with “experts” about public policy solutions that will lead to “a better California for all.”

Well, OK, in this age of obscene expenditures for campaigns, I guess five days of subsidized fun in the sun is small potatoes. And I guess these folks really need to fly off to Hawaii, since there are no good beach resorts to be found in California. And I guess it’s good that Republicans and Democrats are actually talking to each other -- something that does not seem to happen back in Washington, D.C. And I’ll even stipulate that not too many politicians sell their souls for a mere $350 room and all the mai tais they can drink. But here’s the problem: This is all about access. 

In those relaxed hours between heady policy seminars when legislators and lobbyists are sitting around the pool or playing a round of golf or ordering another round at the hosted bar, there are bonds being forged, friendships blossoming and good feelings being cultivated. This is an opportunity most citizens do not ever get.

So when those legislators are back at work and someone knocks at their office door, who gets in and who gets told to come back some other day? The lowly citizen might be given a minute or two for a handshake and a snapshot, but guess who is invited for a private word in the inner sanctum. You know who; that nice guy or gal who was so much fun back in Hawaii, the one who was nice enough to pick up the check.