Studying assembly's powerful `third house'

Lobbyists: Ex-legislator Robertson good choice to head state panel looking at ethics code.

August 24, 1999

IT'S time to get serious about setting a code of conduct for lobbyists in Maryland's state capital. Few are better equipped for such a delicate task than former Del. Donald B. Robertson of Montgomery County.

He was named last week to head a study commission that will determine if lobbyists need a code of ethics or should even be licensed.

The more than 500 "registered representatives" have become so powerful in Annapolis that some observers refer to them as the "third house" of the General Assembly. Spending on State House lobbying has grown from $7.5 million to $21 million in a decade.

What makes Mr. Robertson such a fine choice for the post is his dedication to high public standards. As a delegate for 20 years, including eight years as majority leader, the Chevy Chase lawyer was a leading proponent of good-government laws and crafted many of those statutes. He was a stickler on legislative conduct, too.

Last year's study commission on General Assembly ethics led to a sharp tightening of restrictions on lobbyists' ability to influence lawmakers through gifts, sports tickets and expensive meals. Much more needs to be done.

One concern is lobbyists' ability to promote clients' interests with executive officials without public disclosure. This undercuts confidence in the system.

Lobbyists perform an important role by providing information and opposing points of view. But they are hired guns, not elected or appointed public officials. Higher standards should be set for their conduct, with enforcement tools that are strong enough to work.

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