Crocodile Tears in Annapolis

April 23, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Ah, the crocodile tears! Pity the poor state senators (sob!). ''What will we do without our free tickets to concerts, ball games and sold-out events?''

What a quandary for these solons of American democracy. Heck, it's almost not worth running for office if they take away all the goodies!

Such was the bizarre situation late in the General Assembly session when members of the state Senate finally came face to face with lobbying reform. In case you missed it, they blinked.

Let's face it. Many of these elected officials love the perks of the job. They like the attention lavished on them by lobbyists. And many of them especially adore the free tickets to a skybox or box seat at Oriole Park or USAir Arena or a concert, that hard-to-come-by theater ticket front-row center -- and this year those impossible-to-obtain University of Maryland basketball tickets.

More than a few lobbyists make their living by providing these freebies. They know that the best way to a (male) legislator's heart is a VIP Orioles seat or courtside at Cole Field House.

The second-best way to gain the good graces of a legislator (male or female) is through an elegant meal at a high-priced restaurant. Start with a drink or two, an appetizer, some soup, an entree, fancy dessert, coffee and a nightcap. ''Now, senator, about that bill I wanted to discuss with you. . .''

Those goody-two-shoes known as Common Cause wanted to take away these perks. No free meals, said Common Cause. No free tickets, either. And no gifts. What spoil sports.

Of course, there was the little matter of constituent anger over the growing hold lobbyists have gained over lawmakers. The perception was afoot that lobbyists regularly bought legislators in exchange for free meals and free tickets. The picture infuriated voters. The good name of the legislature was being besmirched.

So incumbents lay low during last year's campaign. They promised sanctimoniously to end these dastardly lobbying practices. And then they got re-elected.

Funny how a politician's memory fades after an election. In the House, bills emerged to ban tickets and gifts and force full disclosure of free meals. A few shiny-bright senators even proposed a ban on free meals But on the Senate floor, reluctance to act was obvious. By the time the measures reached a vote four working days before the end of the session, rebellion was in the air.

But it couldn't be too obvious. What senator wants to state publicly, ''Yes I take free tickets from lobbyists and I love it! How else do you expect me to get into the Streisand concert?''

So they craftily amended the bills to created giant loopholes. Then they passed these ''reforms'' and patted themselves on the back for a job well done.


It's true that the vast majority of legislators cannot be bought. Having a meal or watching a ballgame with a lobbyist isn't going to put these lawmakers in the lobbyist's pocket. But it does buy access, which is critical in the lobbying game. And it creates a dreadful public impression of unseemly coziness.

Moreover, whether legislators want to admit it or not, all these freebies buy the lobbyist votes. Of the 1,000 or so bills a legislator may vote on in a 90-day session, there are hundreds of bills the legislator cares little about. They don't affect his district. It's not a subject that concerns the legislator. It's too complicated a topic to understand.

So when a lobbyist comes to the legislator and asks, ''Give me a vote'' on one of these seemingly inconsequential bills, many lawmakers comply. Why turn down the guy who bought you dinner and provided tickets to the Orioles game over an issue you don't care about?

Yes, access does matter. And getting chummy with legislators matters, too. The truth is that too many senators treasure their free tickets and free meals too dearly to give them up.

Those crocodile tears worked. Now senators have to live with the consequences of their selfishness.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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