Reducing Lobbyists' Influence

March 19, 1991

Curbing the influence of high-powered lobbyists in political campaigns is now within reach. If the state Senate follows the lead of the House, a sweeping reform bill limiting the amount of money and kinds of assistance a lobbyist can pour into a politician's campaign will have surmounted its last major hurdle in Annapolis.

A handful of well-connected and well-paid lobbyists have given their profession a bad image in recent years. Lawmakers fear, with some justification, that citizens were getting the idea that lobbyists and their special-interest clients call the shots in the General Assembly. The bill being considered by the Senate could change that impression.

This measure, among other features, would restrict political action committee donations to $4,000 for local elections and $8,000 for statewide races such as governor. It also would place tough limits on a lobbyist's ability to raise money for candidates. And it would force lobbyists to disclose virtually any money spent to influence a politician -- including any meals, drinks or gifts to legislators in excess of $10.

Many lobbyists and business groups have lined up in support of this reform bill. They understand that the abuses and excesses of some of their colleagues threaten to corrupt the political process.

Listen, for instance, to James J. Doyle Jr., one of the most respected and senior lobbyists in Annapolis. "Money has taken on a role in this process that's well beyond the role money should play," Mr. Doyle told a Senate committee. "There's something wrong if the little guy thinks he can't get access [to a legislator] unless he spends a lot of money."

Indeed there is. Too many legislators ignore the concerns of the "little guy" when a lobbyist asks for help on a bill. A friendly lobbyist, after all, could pump tens of thousands of dollars into a legislator's campaign treasury through his grateful clients.

That's not right. It distorts the legislative process and shuts the door to individuals with legitimate concerns who don't have the financial resources to win favor with legislators through lavish campaign contributions.

If senators want to improve their image, they first must clamp down on the influence of lobbyists. Attempts to raise the proposed $4,000 limit on PAC contributions should be opposed. So should other efforts to weaken the bill. The reform bill now before the Senate would go a long way toward returning lobbyists to their proper role in Maryland's State House and on the campaign trail.

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