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Government Ethics

Watchdog group wants D.C. to see what the states know about revolving doors

Iowa, Maryland and now North Dakota stand out as the states with the hardest brakes on the revolving door between their legislatures and their lobbyists.

That's the assessment of Public Citizen, whose new national study of the rules in all 50 states finds most are tougher or better enforced than what's on the books at the federal level.

The prominent watchdog group is among those hoping to change that — in part by shining new light on the places where it sees ethical governance promoted above special interests' influence.

The limited way that Washington restricts the flow of people from Capitol Hill and the executive agencies down to K Street (and oftentimes back again) is maddening to advocates for a more open and cleaner government — and was raised to new national consciousness by Donald Trump and his "drain the swamp" campaign mantra of 2016.

But as president he's done nothing to push for restrictions on lobbying, while a couple of dozen senior people at least have left his administration to begin careers as influence peddlers. This has created an opening for many of the Democratic presidential candidates to seize the issue in 2020. Two senators in the field, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bennet, are calling for a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress.

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Others are touting their support for the House-passed political process overhaul, HR 1, which would make it more difficult for government contractors to take administration positions, and vice versa, and restrict communications for two years between departed officials and their former agencies.

Public Citizen calls the current federal rules "sorely inadequate" for preventing government officials and lobbyists from changing places, with each improperly benefitting from the insider knowledge they bring to their new jobs.

It joins the consensus view of good-government groups that the current cooling-off period, one year for former House members and executive branch officials, is too short for those leaving government. And it says the loophole permitting them to work right away as "strategic consultants" (telling colleagues at their new firms whom to call at their former agencies) without formally being "lobbyists" (making calls and visits to apply pressure themselves) is too big.

For its new report, out Monday, the advocacy group studied the mind-boggling array of revolving door restrictions in the 43 states that have some curbs. (The seven that set no limits are Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wyoming.)

Public Citizen encouraged Congress to do what a dozen states have done and mandate two-year cooling-off periods for former legislators, agency officials and in some cases senior staffers. (Florida will expand its to six years for people leaving state government after 2022.)

As important, they say, is enactment of federal legislation similar to what's on the books in 13 states: laws taking an expansive view of what is restricted during that time, including not only direct lobbying contacts with former colleagues in the arm of government where they once served, but also any other activities that might be seen as aiding advocacy (helping others with a lobbying campaign, most notably) with any arm of the government.

Six states have done versions of both things: Alabama, Washington, Texas and Louisiana in addition to Iowa and North Dakota. Public Citizen hailed the latter as having two of the "best" revolving door polices among the states because their two-year cooling off mandates apply to former lawmakers, executive branch officials and many of their ex-aides — and the definitions of what they're prohibited from doing in Des Moines and Bismarck is very broad.

The new rules in North Dakota were mandated by the voters in a referendum only last fall, ending an era when the state had no revolving door curbs at all. "Thanks to the public, their state has leapfrogged from last to one of the best," noted Graig Holman, one of the lead authors of the Public Citizen study.

Louisiana's rules are similarly stringent, the group said, but there's ample evidence they're being widely ignored, especially by former legislators openly trolling the halls in Baton Rouge. Loopholes in Alabama's rules, and the statute in Texas, permit ex-lawmakers too much immediate access to the back corridors of the statehouses in Montgomery and Austin, while the curbs on lobbying in Olympia only involve people working to win Washington government contracts.

Instead, Public Citizen picked Maryland as the state with the second-best policies, after Iowa. Though it keeps the revolving door closed for only one year, it said, the comprehensive rules effectively bar former legislators from seeking in any way to influence anyone in any position in state government during that time.

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