This morning the Des Moines Register ran a front page article entitled “Lobbying Free For All”, which suggests that some of Iowa’s special interest groups are gaining undue influence over us elected official types by hosting fancy receptions for us during the legislative session. And while it’s true that there are a lot of receptions hosted by special interest groups, and that some of them are pretty fancy, the idea that any legislator is going to be more likely to vote for a particular bill because s/he had a few glasses of wine and a bunch of appetizers at an event hosted by a special interest group supporting the bill is kind of ridiculous.
I mean, seriously? While I am not for sale (which should be obvious from a review of my most recent campaign finance report) and never will be, and while as far as I know none of my colleagues are for sale, I have to assume that if a legislator was for sale, he/she would be charging a heck of a lot more than the value of a free meal (no matter how fancy), or free tickets to the Speedway, or a bunch of booze, in exchange for his/her vote. Right? Does anyone really believe otherwise?
And (IMHO) it’s inappropriate for the Register to run a front page story insinuating otherwise (and to illustrate that story with a big photo of some legislators framed by a bunch of liquor bottles), without offering any evidence whatsoever that a single legislator has ever changed his/her vote or position on a single issue after attending one of these events. It’s insulting to us, it’s insulting to every organization that has ever hosted one of these events (because let’s face it, the article accuses them all of attempted bribery), and it’s insulting to the Register’s readers — whom I will stipulate have plenty of legitimate reasons to be angry at members of the Iowa General Assembly, but this isn’t one of them.
As for why special interests bother holding these receptions, if not to attempt to buy some influence, I tend to believe that usually it’s for the reasons cited in the article — the organizations want to provide lawmakers an opportunity to meet with their members who have a stake in pending legislation, both so we know that they’re paying attention to what we’re doing and also so we can hear from them, in person, about why they support or oppose certain bills. It’s kind of sad if they truly believe that they have to feed us to get us to show up and listen to their members, because I really don’t think that’s true — but maybe they tried it in the past without the food and drink, and no one showed up? Or maybe the organizations feel that since some of their members have driven all the way from Clinton, or Sioux City, or wherever to attend the reception, they deserve more than a soda and some pretzels (i.e., maybe it’s not all about us).
As for why I attend these receptions (even when I don’t particularly want to go), it’s not to scam free food or to get drunk on free booze — I try to show up out of plain old common courtesy, because I know that whoever is hosting the event put a lot of time and effort (and yes, sometimes money) into planning it, and that they did so in the hopes that a decent number of elected officials would stop in, and it would just be rude to blow them off. So when my schedule allows it, I try to stop by, and spend a few minutes with their members discussing whatever it is that they want to discuss. And often the hosting organization lets me know that they will have one of their members from my district at the event, in which case I really really try and make it (although sometimes I can’t, due to circumstances outside of my control, and if any of you have been at a legislative reception in Des Moines that I didn’t show up to, then I am sincerely sorry, and no disrespect intended).
So it has nothing to do with the food/drink/whatever. I would be just as willing to chat with any of these folks if they stopped by to see me at the Capital (i.e., sans free food and drink), and that happens, on a regular basis. When folks from Clinton County travel to Des Moines to lobby us legislators — folks like our local community leaders, or realtors, or landlords, or educators, or medical providers, or victim rights advocates, or union members, or gun owners, or smoking cessation advocates, or Sheriff Lincoln, who seems to spend almost as much time in Des Moines as I do (just kidding, Sheriff) — they can and do send in written requests to meet with me (a yellow slip if they’re at the front door of the House Chamber, and a blue slip if they’re at the back door), and if I’m available, I always come out and talk to whomever it is who wants to talk to me about whatever it is that they want to discuss — partly because it’s usually nice seeing people from back home, but mainly because it’s my job.
(Now, the free tickets to the Iowa Corn Indy last May? That, I will admit, seemed a wee bit much, and I didn’t attend — but I know of at least a few legislators who did attend, and who none the less voted no on the “Ag Gag” bill. So there, Des Moines Register).