Beware misguided populism

Lobbyists: Legislators should resist passing a bill that is more loophole than law.

April 06, 2002

UNDER COLOR of helping Joe Citizen, the Maryland General Assembly is moving toward passing a bill that could help the Enrons of the world.

It would achieve that lamentable end by allowing trade and professional organizations to exempt themselves, in effect, from lobbyist registration regulations.

Had such a piece of ill-conceived legislation been in effect a few years ago, the Enron corporation and other big hitters could have dispatched members of their industry groups who would have been free to flog an Enron interest outside the limits the law.

Under the proposal, they could spend a fifth of their time in Annapolis, but wouldn't have to register. Current restrictions on registered lobbyists, put in place over many years, wouldn't apply. Bans on lobbyists lending money to legislators wouldn't apply. Nor would restrictions on campaign fund raising by lobbyists.

Proponents of the legislation say it corrects a problem in the exemplary lobbyist reform act passed last year after a meticulous study by former Del. Donald B. Robertson and others. But this explanation is camouflage, or worse. The provision that requires registration by trade and professional organizations has been in the law for 25 years or so.

Surely the authors of this bill had good intentions, but their sweeping alterations make one wonder.

Anyone who has been in Annapolis for a single legislative session, anyone who has had to deal with laws and regulations on campaign finance knows that loopholes get exploited - and they're not always inadvertent. Clever lawyers are ever present to show their clients how this or that law can be favorably shaped.

If the idea was to make the legislative process easier to navigate by citizens who come to petition government, it can be achieved easily enough. The language about exempting professional and trade organizations should come out of the bill in committee or on the Senate floor.

Otherwise, the General Assembly will have invited serious mischief.

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