Months of work on legislative ethics reform lurched another step forward Wednesday when Missouri House and Senate negotiators compromised on how long lawmakers must wait before they can become lobbyists.
The House passed a bill earlier this year barring lawmakers from lobbying for one year after they leave office. The Senate removed the waiting period, saying instead lawmakers need only finish their term before returning to the Capitol to lobby their former colleagues.
Under a compromise struck Wednesday in a conference committee, lawmakers would be prohibited from returning to the Capitol as a paid lobbyist for six months after their term expires. The middle ground emerged after an hour of discussion about what would be the most effective policy that could actually win approval in the Senate, where bipartisan opposition could still sink the bill.
“I support a one-year cooling-off period,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, a St. Louis County Democrat. “But I’m concerned that if we take too aggressive a position we may get nothing.”
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After a year marked by scandal — including the resignations of two lawmakers over inappropriate conduct with interns — the General Assembly entered 2016 with legislative leaders promising to pass ethics reform.
A revolving-door ban preventing legislators from leaving office one day and returning the next as a lobbyist was among the top goals.
Over the last decade, as voter-imposed term limits began driving elected officials out of office, lobbyists’ ranks have swelled with former legislators and staff cashing in on their expertise and connections. To critics, the dynamic erodes public trust and runs the risk of corrupting policy. It fuels a perception that lawmakers are casting votes to curry favor with potential future employers.
Congress and at least 33 states have revolving-door bans in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, said there is an issue with legislators trying to profit from their elected office.
That’s why he said he supports prohibiting lawmakers from lobbying until they finish out their terms, pointing to numerous instances in recent years of lawmakers resigning early to lobby — most notably former House speaker Steve Tilley and former Senate president pro tem Tom Dempsey.
However, Holsman argued passionately Wednesday morning that a cooling-off period beyond that is unconstitutional and would eventually get the entire bill struck down by the courts.
Additionally, he said it’s unfair to tell someone who has served the public and is being forced out of office due to term limits that that person can’t seek employment in the Capitol.
“Ninety-five percent of (legislators) aren’t trying to leverage their position,” Holsman said. “They’re doing public service, and then when they’re done they’re seeking employment for what they know, and they know the process of a General Assembly.”
Holsman also questioned the effectiveness of a cooling-off period, saying lawmakers will simply take a job consulting at a lobbying firm or as a “government affairs director” while waiting to legally register as a lobbyist.
“You’re fighting for something that’s not going to get approved in the Senate and isn’t going to fundamentally change how this building operates,” Holsman said.
Rep. Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican sponsoring the legislation, said the goal of the bill is to thwart possible corruption. But improving the public’s perception of the Capitol, especially in light of last year’s scandals, must also be a priority.
“We’re fighting a (public relations) battle as well,” he said. “And I think we have to.”
In the end, both sides agreed that the House would never accept a bill that doesn’t include a cooling-off period.
“We can’t go home with a zero,” said Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican.
Both sides also agreed the Senate wouldn’t pass a one-year ban.
“We’re going to have a hard time getting a year,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican.
Thus, six months became the compromise.
Holsman said he will support the compromise legislation, although he still questions whether it can win Senate approval. He also continues to worry a court will strike down the entire bill.
“I’m fine with a cooling-off period,” he said. “I just think we’re going to be back here down the road after a court says it’s unconstitutional.”
If the conference committee’s recommendations are approved by the House and Senate, the bill will go to Gov. Jay Nixon for his signature or veto.