"If you want to understand your government," conservative columnist George Will once wrote, "don't begin by reading the Constitution. ... Instead, read selected portions of the Washington telephone directory."
Will suggested pages 354-358, which offered listings for lobbying groups that start with the word "National" large ones like the National Association of Manufacturers and many smaller ones: the National Candy Wholesalers Association, National Cigar Leaf Tobacco Association, etc. Will revealed the reason many of these lobbying groups exist: "They want to bend public power to their private purposes, which always include enrichment."
It follows, of course, that if we want to understand our state government, we ought to read the lobbyists directory from the Secretary of State's office in Sacramento. Substitute "California" or "Western" for "National" and we get groups like the Western Plastics Association, Western States Petroleum Association, and our own Western United Dairymen, based here in Modesto. These are three examples from the 837-page directory of lobbyists registered in California.
Fortunately for two San Joaquin Valley elected officials who recently resigned, their new employers are in this directory. And considering their estimated new salaries (details not made public), they're very fortunate.
State Sen. Michael Rubio from Kern County quit his job in Sacramento last month to work as a government affairs adviser for the oil giant Chevron. And Congressman Dennis Cardoza from Merced County quit his job last August to work as managing director of government and regulatory policy for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a firm representing dozens of high-profile companies.
Cardoza and Rubio have much in common. Both are business-friendly, conservative Democrats. Both had problems with environmental laws: Cardoza working for years to "reform" the Endangered Species Act and Rubio working to "streamline" the California Environmental Quality Act.
Both resigned their public service jobs without finishing their terms. Both brought up parenting issues as their main reasons, but both of these fathers had cushy options waiting for them. Both men moved to the influence-peddling business, and both are temporarily slowed by ethics rules that prohibit the direct lobbying of former colleagues for one year.
Fortunately for them, there are loopholes opportunities for indirect lobbying, consulting, overseeing strategies, etc. And both Cardoza and Rubio have been accused of sliding through that sleazy revolving door between politics and big business.
As many former legislators (and other public officials) draw hefty paychecks from the industries they once regulated, conflicts of interest appear. Were these officials always impartial in their public service, always acting on their determination of the public interest? Or were they keeping principles in check to audition for lucrative positions in the private sector, keeping one eye on the revolving door?
Is it fair to exploit insider information and personal relationships to lobby on behalf of wealthy clients who could be acting against the interests of consumers and taxpayers?
Many citizens have huge stakes in public policy but can't afford to hire a lobbyist firm. Isn't it a betrayal of the public trust to take the experience and information provided in a position granted by voters, and then use that experience against former constituents? Such behavior makes everyone more cynical, and it's demoralizing to dedicated public officials who don't use their positions as stepping stones to bigger paychecks.
Not all lobbying is sleazy. Everybody, even heavily financed special interests, has the right to petition their government. And there are many modestly financed associations that lobby for the public good. For example, I believe that clean air is important, so I'm glad the American Lung Association and the Sierra Club lobby for cleaner air. But isn't it sad that they have to? And isn't it sad they can be so easily outgunned and outspent by Rubio's new employer, Chevron, and perhaps by some of Cardoza's new clients?
In the late 1800s, a New York official named George Washington Plunkitt was a member of the infamous Tammany Hall, a political organization known for graft and corruption. Plunkitt was unapologetic about the wealth he acquired through politics. His best-known quote: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
We haven't made much progress on government ethics since then, have we?
Barker is a school librarian who lives in Modesto. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.