SCOTT MOONEYHAM: A Lobbying Reform End-Run
The cat has not even been put in the bag yet, and it's already escaped.
The cat, in this case, is North Carolina's ban on lobbyists' political contributions set to go into effect in January. Its escape is being facilitated by a political action committee formed by Republican women legislators.
The PAC, called the Committee to Elect Republican Women, isn't new. It's been around since 1999. Campaign finance reports show that it raised $43,230 in the latest election cycle.
But the PAC isn't taking any time off to rest following the election. Instead, it has sent out an invitation to some traditional donors, including lobbyists, for a fund-raising breakfast the morning before the new legislative session begins on Jan. 24.
The invitation, seeking donations from $150 to $4,000, notes that the PAC has received an opinion from the state Legislative Services Office that the new lobbying laws do not apply to political action committees and that contributions by lobbyists and their employers are permitted.
The letter may be a first. It won't be the last.
Instead, expect more groups of legislators to create PACs from which they can receive lobbyists' money and pass it on to other campaigns, including their own. If state lawmakers follow the lead of members of Congress, they'll be creating their own individual PACs in no time.
Of course, banning campaign donations by lobbyists probably wasn't a good idea in the first place.
Given the courts' interpretation of political donations as free speech, the ban is probably unconstitutional.
In fact, the proponents of the lobbying and governmental reforms approved by the General Assembly earlier this year never put a lobbyists' contribution ban high on their list. It was the wining and dining and gift-giving by lobbyists that they wanted stopped.
But the reform coalition did want lawmakers to prohibit lobbyists from acting as politicians' fund-raisers. Those activities -- soliciting donations on behalf of political candidates and organizing fund-raising events -- raise a far more troubling conflict of interest than any individual donations from a lobbyist.
Obviously, any legislator who uses a lobbyist to help them raise tens of thousands of dollars is going to be beholden to that lobbyist.
And banning this kind of activity is much more likely to withstand court scrutiny.
Federal laws have long applied standards of conduct to people based on their professions. Stock traders and investment advisers, for example, are required to report their own investment activities and are prohibited from some activities open to those not in the profession.
Given those prohibitions, it's hard to see why North Carolina couldn't regulate certain activities by registered lobbyists.
Now that the Republican women's PAC has demonstrated that the ban on lobbyists' contributions was meaningless, there's good reason for legislators to revisit the issue.
Then again, perhaps they never really wanted legitimate reforms that would withstand court scrutiny and manipulation.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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