Lobbying: It's Where the Money Is

BARRY RASCOVAR

June 13, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

If your kids are thinking about becoming lawyers or doctors or engineers when they grow up, you'd better straighten them out. That's not where the easy money is anymore. No, the big bucks for the 1990s are in a newer profession: lobbying.

The take-home pay for lobbyists in Annapolis, for instance, is eye-popping. The Top Ten lobbyists each raked in a staggering $351,000, on average, for a six-month period. Most of that dough was earned in just a three-month period when the General Assembly was in session.

In all, nearly 500 people are registered lobbyists in Maryland. That comes to two-and-a-half lobbyists for every legislator.

And the number of lobbyists is growing. No wonder: You get to live the good life on your client's money, you get to schmooze with the decision-makers in government and you get to influence public policy. Plus, you get a financial reward that can reach beyond three-quarters of a million dollars.

It's a great line of work. It also is an expanding profession. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of superlobbyist Bruce Bereano, lobbyists are now heavily into state-government contract awards.

GTECH, for instance, grabbed the state's lottery computer contract away from the incumbent vendor last year, with the aid of Mr. Bereano's clout. As a result, Mr. Bereano is still receiving a lucrative fee from GTECH -- a total of $116,000 in the last six months (he shared part of this with his co-lobbyist in this venture, ex-Gov. Marvin Mandel). This, despite the fact that GTECH had no big battles to win in the legislature this year.

Now all big state contracts are viewed as up for grabs, although they're supposed to be awarded on the basis of lowest price and competitive bids. Lobbyists are clamoring to represent bidders, with the unstated intent of influencing officials to tilt the procurement award their way.

There's also all that money going into lobbyists' pockets from companies worried about legislation that might affect them. For instance, the struggle over health-care reform this spring presented lobbyists with a field day: More than two dozen of them billed their clients over $1 million to influence the shape of the state's new health-cost reform law.

Even companies trying to erase their reputations for reckless disregard to the bottom line turned generous with Annapolis lobbyists: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of the National Capital Area spent $95,000 for its lobbyist, Devin Doolan, while Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland spent more than $200,000 divided among 11 lobbyists. For non-profit companies with severe financial problems, that's a big investment.

Lobbyists earn their pay by influencing what happens in the State House. Some of them do it the old-fashioned way -- persuading senators and delegates through the logic of their arguments. Others do it by pandering to lawmakers -- treating them like celebrities, showering them with gifts and tickets to sporting events and entertainment, helping them solve personal and business problems and treating them regularly to expensive meals.

Mr. Bereano, for instance, spent $1,800 a week just on food during the last six months. That buys a lot of tournedos, lobster and imported wine for legislators. It also buys a lobbyist access to legislators, and access is often the name of the lobbying game.

All this attention from the growing horde of lobbyists is distorting the democratic process in the State House. Lobbying is becoming the fifth branch of government -- often more potent than the press and powerful enough to sway both the legislative and executive branches.

It is a corrupting influence. Legislators now expect to receive regal treatment. They expect lobbyists to help bankroll their next campaign.

In return, some are willing to sell their votes, in essence, on most issues. Legislators won't admit it, but that's what happens. A few lobbyists even brag that they have a certain number of legislators they can "turn" on any vote to benefit a client.

What a mess. Lobbyists won't lift a finger to discipline their colleagues. Legislators, who do have the power to regulate lobbyists' behavior, aren't willing to kill the golden goose.

Sooner or later, it will get out of hand. Lobbyists are edging closer to the invisible line that separates right from wrong in influencing elected officials. When that line is crossed, alarm bells will sound and a public scandal will ensue.

Then legislators will adopt rules to rein in the miscreants. But until then, the lobbying profession will continue to thrive and to expand by leaps and bounds. It is truly a growth industry for this state in the decade of the '90s.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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