This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
Are the people who run political campaigns unsympathetic characters? Yes, they are. But they have to eat, and some of them make a living by lobbying the same lawmakers they helped elect — and who might hire them again when it is time to seek office again.
Side businesses are nothing new for political folk. Back in the day, for instance, the Texas Republican consultant Karl Rove had a business that raised money for museums and the arts. One enterprise kept him alive in even-numbered years, the other fed him when the political fields were fallow. He also had corporate clients. While George W. Bush was governor, Rove got into a flap for advising corporations on politics — all the while saying he did no lobbying for them. That kind of thing is not unusual in Texas.
Consultants’ calendars sync with officeholders’ schedules, and with political seasons and government seasons. People like Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth and Ted Delisi of Austin — a couple of names among many — work on or for political campaigns during elections and also register to lobby elected lawmakers for other clients after the elections.
Others continue to advise their political clients during legislative sessions without registering as lobbyists, even though they also advise other clients about politics. They are not lobbying, the story goes, if their other clients did not hire them to advocate for or against issues before the Legislature.
Those arrangements make some people — notably, competing lobbyists — crazy.
From their perspective, the lobbyists contribute to campaigns. The candidates hire consultants to run the campaigns. The candidates become officeholders, and the consultants become lobbyists, competing with the same lobbyists who were among the campaign donors in the first place.
The lobbyists’ frustration is compounded when the consultants work outside the definition of lobbying — in public relations or as political specialists — and thus skip those pesky registration disclosures to show which interests they really represent.
It is a gray zone in the law, but some consultants say the lobbying disclosures apply only to people who are trying to get lawmakers to support or oppose a particular issue or piece of legislation. Warning a member of the Legislature that a particular pending vote has electoral consequences, they argue, is not lobbying, even if the consultant giving the advice is also on the payroll of a firm or organization that might have a close interest in that same pending vote.
And is it threatening someone to tell them that a particular vote could be used against them in a campaign? That is what constituents and activists do every day when they tell state officials how they want them to govern.
The consultants who register as lobbyists — like the Delisis and the Eppsteins — say the solution is found in those disclosures, that the voters and lawmakers know what is going on and have the information they need to connect the dots. They have First Amendment rights, after all, and ought to be able to work in the democracy and also petition the government like everybody else. It is both legal and protected.
Legislators might tweak the disclosures so that the lobby filings link to the campaign reports or list the candidates someone worked for (side effects might include — surprise! — increased political profiling – by partisan identification — of lobbyists).
But to get everybody, lawmakers would have to tweak the definition of lobbying, to catch anyone who gets money for dealing with lawmakers about anything that is potentially coming up for a vote. Given the variety of issues considered by lawmakers, that could be a ridiculously long list.
And what to do with the lawyers, who always muck this up? Suppose a law firm gets hired to lobby for one outfit and to do legal work — not legislative work — for another. It registers as a lobbyist for one, but not the other, right? Suppose a consultant is in the same position, but does not have that legal shield known as the attorney-client privilege with which to leave some clients undisclosed and protected? The first client is for lobbying and the second, say, just wants the consultant’s advice for its political action committee?
So far, nobody has figured out how an ideal disclosure might work. And they cannot stop the consultants from wanting to eat during the political off-season.