Stevens, Brubaker are latest lawmakers-turned-lobbyists

As top lawmakers come back as lobbyists, it’s clear a longer cooling-off period is needed.

February 4, 2013 

More than half of the members of the General Assembly are in their first or second terms, so it’s good they’ll be guided by two old legislative hands, Harold Brubaker and Richard Stevens.

Brubaker, 66, a former Republican House speaker, has 35 years experience in the lower chamber, and Stevens, 64, a Cary Republican and Wake County’s former manager, is a 10-year veteran of the Senate. Both men became experts in state spending by heading budget committees in their respective chambers.

But what’s this? These two fixtures aren’t legislators anymore? They quit the General Assembly last year and will be back this session as lobbyists?

Maybe we shouldn’t be grateful for their guidance after all. What we should be is worried about it. Top legislators-turned-hired-guns advising lawmakers sounds like an opening for well-funded interests to buy influence. It’s time to slow down the revolving door through which legislators return as lobbyists.

A brief delay

An ethics law passed in 2005 requires a six-month delay or “cooling-off period” before a lawmaker can lobby his former colleagues. Former Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Wake County Democrat who sponsored the bill, wanted a one-year cooling-off period, but six months was all she could get through. By leaving office early, Brubaker in July and Stevens in September, the former lawmakers are now in a position to serve one session and lobby in the next.

Both men acted within the law, but in doing so they made the case for a better one. The cooling-off period should be at least a year. Thirty-five states restrict legislators from immediately returning as lobbyists. Those cooling-off periods range from one to two years. Former members of the U.S. House must wait a year to lobby. Members of the U.S. Senate must wait two years. An executive order issued by President Obama bars all presidential appointees from returning to lobby the administration.

Six months is just too brief a time for political grease to cool. And the prospect of a quick lobbying payday can influence which special interests legislators listen to before they leave office.

Pre-lobbying period

In the case of Brubaker, the cooling-off period was more a time for warming up, The News & Observer’s Rob Christensen recently reported. Once out of the House, Brubaker delayed registering as a lobbyist – a status that would have barred him from making campaign donations. He made contributions to several Republican House candidates, including $4,000 to House Speaker Thom Tillis, who hardly seemed to need such generous support since he was running unopposed.

Stevens, a state senator from 2002 to 2012, is well-regarded for his relatively moderate politics, his effectiveness in office and his integrity. That he is about to come spinning back though the Jones Street door shows that even the best of lawmakers are not immune to the lobbying lure.

Lobbyists can help the process by bringing their knowledge to legislators who are swamped by too many issues, but legislators-turned-lobbyists are generally not paid for their legislative expertise. They are paid for their contacts and their ability to gain access to key decision-makers.

It’s not too late for Republicans to extend the cooling-off period and to show there really has been a change in who’s in charge. If we could afford them, we’d hire both Stevens and Brubaker to lobby for that. Though perhaps, through their quick change of roles, they already have.

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