Free at last! 

A longtime lobbyist leaves the hall behind

The 60th Montana Legislative Session started yesterday, and for the first time in more than 20 years I didn’t have to get up early, spray starch on my shirt, shine my shoes, check my hand-painted silk tie for spots, and walk into the Capitol as a registered lobbyist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. pretty much sum it up: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”

Now I wouldn’t want my exuberance to give readers the wrong impression. Fact of the matter is, I very much enjoyed my last two decades in the policy arena and I have a tremendous amount of respect for my fellow lobbyists who are still there—well, at least most of them.

But as a writer, the obvious conflicts between what I wanted to be able to convey and the sometimes not-so-good reactions those stories elicited from one party or another within the Capitol, certainly had the potential to create problems for a lobbyist trying to get legislation passed or funded.

And from a writer’s perspective, there was always the nagging question of what kind of conflict of interest there might be in writing about topics on which I was being paid to lobby. American Indian issues come to the forefront of the list for me, as I spent so much time in the last decade working on them. Did I want to write about those issues and share the hard-won knowledge of what it’s really like trying to deal with a white-guy Legislature on American Indian issues? You bet. But the ethical constraints got in the way and the American Indian issue columns were few and far between.

So, in fairness to the clients and the readers, the double-agent writer-lobbyist gig is done. Now I’m just a writer with a bunch of experience in how the system works, and I’ll be able to share those insights even more broadly with readers in the future. Certainly you can expect to see more on Montana’s tribal affairs, but the same holds true for political parties, politicians, and the full panoply of people affiliated with Montana’s public policy arena.

One thing that deserves some discussion on the way out the lobbyist door is just how important the lobbyist corps is to the legislative process. Gov. Schweitzer, who qualifies as a rookie at legislative proceedings since he’s only been through one session, has routinely made it a point to trash lobbyists. Even worse, especially for a politician who considers himself astute, is the way the governor tosses all lobbyists in the same bin under a black Jack Abramoff hat. Here, Brian Schweitzer is fully and completely incorrect.

While Schweitzer’s broad-brush attack on lobbyists was useful for campaign purposes against Burns and his D.C. cronies, it is wildly off-base for Montana. For one thing, our Legislature meets only once every two years. Hence, there is no day-to-day, full-time, year-round lobbyist corps operating in Helena because there’s no one to lobby except the occasional interim committee member until the full Legislature comes to town.

So all the nasty images of buying drinks and dinners and taking senators and representatives on expensive outings to Scottish golf courses or tropical getaways on corporate junkets simply don’t apply here. This is a not-so-subtle distinction Schweitzer simply refuses to make. What we really have in Montana are part-time lobbyists who, for all the right reasons, don’t do the D.C. dance.

Our lobbyist reporting laws are also far tougher than federal lobbying laws—which isn’t surprising, considering those laws were written by a Congress being heavily lobbied by a thousand special interests, none of which were particularly interested in seeing any of their “tools” outlawed.

In Montana, no public official may accept gifts worth more than $50 from anyone. Likewise, if a lobbyist takes a bunch of legislators out to dinner, the lobbyist is required by law to list the legislator, the issues discussed, and how much the affair cost if it exceeded $25 per legislator—and all expenses must be reported.

For another thing, everybody knows everybody in Montana. This may not be apparent to newcomers, but after you’ve been here for a while you realize that sooner or later, all the circles intersect.

This means our level of knowledge about what’s going on is significantly higher and more transparent than the shadowy D.C. morass.

If, for instance, some big bucks corporate lobbyist decides to toss a fete at a country club and wine and dine a legislative committee, you can bet it will be public knowledge in the Capitol corridors by the next morning. Someone with an interest in that particular corporate lobbyist’s legislative goals is certain to check the required reporting to make sure it gets filed. Moreover, anyone thinking about spending large sums of money on Montana’s legislators had best take public opinion into account. As Conrad Burns can tell you, Montanans just aren’t that fond of having our public officials bought and paid for.

And finally, ever since term limits—and even before—lobbyists have provided one of state government’s few reliable sources of institutional knowledge on specific issues. Legislators have little or no time to learn about the thousands of bills they face each session; by necessity, they rely on lobbyists to get their questions answered. The good part is that there are lobbyists on both sides of virtually every issue, so legislators can compare and contrast proponents and opponents prior to voting.

By and large, Montana’s lobbyist core is rich in knowledge and pretty dang ethical. I was proud to serve in it, but now I’ve traded the power suits for the power of the pen—and this former lobbyist is “free at last.”

Former lobbyist George Ochenski continues to rattle the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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