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Discussion: Campaign Finance and Lobbyists in Iowa Politics

posted on February 11, 2008 at 10:54 AM

With us to discuss the role of lobbyists, ethics and whether there is a need for further reforms are two people who work with these issues on an almost daily basis.

Representative Scott Raecker is a Republican on the House Ethics Committee. He is also the Director of Character Counts, which is a program that works to instill integrity in all facets of life. And Charlie Smithson is Executive Director and Legal Counsel for the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board and he also contributed to a book titled, "Money, Politics and Campaign Finance Reform Law in the States."

Mundt: So, have you done any lobbying yourself?

Smithson: For purposes of disclosure, I'm actually a registered lobbyist on behalf of the Ethics Board. So I'm one of those guys they talk about, one of the four and a half to one guys.

Mundt: Well, we mentioned that Iowa Public Television has some representation on the hill. I work for an organization that is part of the Iowa Board of Regents, and we also have lobbying, so I think we should just get all that out there on the ground here.

Let's go to that comment from Carol Simmons in the piece just a moment ago. She said: I think it's important that the public has a voice here, that too much of the lobbying that goes on is for private interests and not public interests. I'd like to get your thoughts on each of that. I'll start with you, Representative Raecker.

Raecker: Well, I think it's an excellent point to make, and I think it's one of the things that we need to continue to communicate about as elected representatives in our state. It's really about access, is what the point is, and it's interesting with the way technology has changed. I would say that a general public citizen actually has more immediate access to me than even a lobbyist in the rotunda, for the fact that I've got my laptop computer with me and every meeting at my desk, and when a constituent sends me an e-mail on an issue, it's immediate information to me on how they feel.

The other thing is that those that are out there in the lobby are representing interests, similar to what you mentioned with Iowa Public Television. If you've got a viewer that enjoys Iowa Public Television, there is a lobbyist lobbying on behalf of Iowa Public Television to bring that access in a greater ability to Iowans. So I think Iowans are represented in many ways. But I think we can do even better about that person to person, citizen to legislative access.

Mundt: How do you tie the two together? The pharmaceutical lobbyists who may come to you and say: here's an important issue that I think you should know about, and the pharmacist back in your district who has a concern -- maybe they're the same, maybe they're different concerns. But how do you tie those two together?

Raecker: I think the thing that we need to remember is that it's a citizen legislative body. Many of us have very active career pursuits beyond the legislative arena, we've got families, we're trying to balance our time, and we can't be experts on all issues.

I think the incumbent responsibility for all of us is to seek out all of the information that we can on all sides of the issues, so we can make the best-informed decision. So not only do I need to know what the pharmaceutical companies believe may be in their best interests, but I need to know what the local pharmacists believe. And then as to a comment that the tape made is I need to know what the general public thinks.

Right now, as an example, when we're starting to discuss the bottle bill issue and the new tax potentially on the bottle bill, and should we expand it, not only do we have paid lobbyists doing that, but I'll be at the Urbandale basketball game and asking people sitting next to me: what do you think about it? Or after church coffee, asking people what do they think?

I think we need to make the connection that what we're trying to find is the most information we can, to make the best decisions we can on the public's behalf.

Mundt: Charlie, do you have any additional thoughts on this idea of public interest versus private interests and lobbying?

Smithson: Well, I would encourage anyone that wants to come down and lobby to do so. Iowa actually has a fairly simple process, as opposed to some other states. We don't charge fees, for example, to register to lobby like some states do. So you can lobby for free. I just want you to follow the rules to make my life easier.

Mundt: Is that why Iowa perhaps has the large number of lobbyists that it does have registered. In the fact that it's -- and I don't mean necessarily that that's a bad thing -- but the fact that it is easier, if you want to just come down and lobby, you just go through the registration process?

Smithson: I think the simplicity of our process, as well as especially lately, we've seen how close the Republicans and Democrats are, as far as numbers in the legislature. A lot of people have a lot of issues, and when there is that much closeness as far as bipartisan activities, you can get your issue heard. I mean, some states where it's so one-sided for one party, some people don't even really have a reason to come down to the capitol. That's not true in Iowa.

Mundt: Representative Raecker, in your position -- you're looking at this all the time, I imagine -- the larger issue is a big concern for you. Is there enough oversight of lobbying in Iowa? Are there particular areas that are of concern to you right now?

Raecker: I think we do a good job. I also believe we can do better. It's really beyond the access and the question about influence then that comes in… the way that we can address that, I believe, is by transparency: appropriate reporting, those House records that were mentioned are on file. I know as a member of the Ethics Committee I review those. I know there are people in the public that review those.

Director Smithson has worked very hard the last several years to bring our campaign disclosure reports in an on-line, real-time fashion, and we're getting closer to that with electronic filing. We need to do that same with the House. Now, I can pull up on my computer at the House and see what lobbyists have registered on what bills and in what capacity either for, against or just tracking. I should be able to do that same thing with their lobbyist reports as well.

I think if there were a problem, there are enough people that are engaged in having the public trust and public interest in mind. We also have a fairly simple process to bring a complaint before the Ethics Committee in the House. In my ten years there, we've only had one complaint in the ten years, and that was an unfounded complaint after the process we went through to look at that. So I think we do a good job, but we can do a better job.

Mundt: Charlie, do you agree with that?

Smithson: I think so. One thing I should point out is we actually have two different types of lobbyists in Iowa. One is a legislative branch lobbyist, you saw the kind of filings they do. Another is the executive branch, which I oversee, and we do put all of their reports up on the Internet.

The problem is a lot of those people file by paper, so it's my staff doing data entry, re-filing some of their reports. I think one of the things we need to look at is a mandatory electronic filing. I mean, everybody now has access to a computer. We've made our system easier, and I think that would really help the public, if we moved in that direction.

Mundt: Is there oversight in the sense of, you know, I can file the documents, and I could engage fraudulently with the documents and say that things happened that didn't happen, or minimize something that I did as a lobbyist that was greater and that might have been illegal? Is there somebody that has the ability to go through all those documents and say, you know, I've got a question about that?

Raecker: There's not a paid staffer that does that, and it probably is one of those things that I mentioned we could do better. At the same time, I'll tell you, it really is a public process. Not only are those documents available to any legislator, they're available to any citizen. There are citizen action groups that review those.

There's also on most every issue at least two if not three sides to an issue, and if there were one side on that issue that we're doing something inappropriate, there is almost a self-policing that goes on amongst the lobby themselves. They have the ability to bring a complaint before the committee as well. So again, I believe we can do better, but I also believe we have a fairly transparent system as it is in Iowa, and I think we need to continue to go down that path.

Mundt: Let's get to the campaign contributions issue. I'll start with you, Charlie, and I'll come to you Representative Raecker. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of regulation there. It's one of these open areas where a lobbyist can't give a lot of money directly to a candidate, but may be able to go out and raise money for that candidate through a pack. Does there need to be tighter regulation of that?

Smithson: One of the things that the legislature is exploring are contribution limits. Iowa is one of a handful of states at this point that does not have any kind of contribution limit, so you can get a million dollar check from a lobbyist from a PAC. That is something that probably needs to be explored, is the amount of money just coming into campaigns.

Mundt: Representative Raecker?

Raecker: I would agree with that, again, it's a transparency issue. One of the things we've been working on for the last several years with the Ethics Board is this transparency with electronic reporting and filing. We only have about 40-45% of candidates for office right now in the state that file electronically. We passed a bill last year that will grandfather in, I believe by 2012, to require that everyone file electronically. What that then allows is the general public will be able to go into a searchable database to look at who is giving what to whom.

I also agree with Director Smithson. It's one of the things that both parties actually have proponents of, is to look at caps on campaign contributions. It's a sensitive issue, obviously, but we are one of the few states that you do not have caps. And with that, you see fairly large amounts of money going into the process. And I think it would be something that we should at least address and debate. Do we want to put some caps on as part of that?

The other thing I'll mention that was raised about PACs. And the thing you need to remember about PACs is that PACs are made up of people. So if it's the Iowa Dental Association PAC, those are local dentists in Iowa that are contributing to that PAC to advance their agenda to try and communicate with their legislators and wanting to support legislators across the state. So again, sometimes PACs get a negative connotation -- and especially at the federal level -- but I think they also do a lot of good.

And, you know, the question as far as do they drive or influence? You know, typically a Democrat agenda would be more of a labor advanced agenda, if you will. A Republican agenda would be maybe more of a business association advanced agenda. Well, typically those two PAC associations contribute to those types of candidates. So it's almost a circular thing. Rather than saying that they're advancing their cause because they contributed, they may be contributing because that is more philosophically aligned with their position.

Mundt: It's a more nuanced argument, certainly. Do you think that it's possible that this session, lawmakers might have a chance to begin looking at this issue of PAC contributions? Or how do you see that shaking out?

Raecker: I'm hopeful. There has been a subcommittee meeting on a bill -- with full disclosure that I'm a co-sponsor on -- that has been introduced. Probably the last five or six years, bipartisan, Representative Jerry Hughes or myself has sponsored a bill to put some caps on campaign contributions. It has gone through a sub-committee, and we're hopeful we can get it through committee and onto the floor.

Mundt: Question for you; I'm going to get to both of you on this. The House Democratic leader Kevin McCarthy in just the past couple of days has talked about putting a ban on lobbyist contributions to lawmakers all year long, not just during the session. What are your thoughts on that?

Smithson: I have reviewed Representative McCarthy's bill, and what I've done so far is looked at court decisions in other states that have tried bans like this, just to see. Because there are some First Amendment concerns on what other states have done.

An outright ban on lobbyist giving all year round has had some tough sledding in the courts. But other states have approved bans such as lobbyists couldn't give to legislators outside of their district -- that was upheld in Alaska. The state of California upheld not being able to give campaign contributions to people you lobby. So just to say that no court would ever approve any kind of limitation on lobbyist giving is not accurate. But there are, of course, some Constitutional concerns there.

Mundt: And flesh this out a little bit, the First Amendment and the Constitutional concerns.

Smithson: As you well know, the First Amendment says that you can't restrict speech, and the courts have said that political speech is core speech. So if you're going to regulate in this area, it has to be a compelling state interest, it has to be newly drawn. I don't want to bore all your viewers with all the legalese of that, but you've got to tread carefully in regulation here, other than disclosure. Disclosure has pretty much always been accepted. It's when you start to limit or prohibit things that you've got to be a little more cautious with proceeding forward.

Mundt: Marty Ryan of the ICLU, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, said we have the right to contribute to any campaign that we want to in the state. He's definitely saying that this is an issue of the First Amendment for us, and it's quite clear that they intend to fight anything like that if it came forward.

Smithson: Marty and I would probably end up in court if this became law and then we'll see how things play out. That's why you have courthouses.

Raecker: If this bill were to pass, it would be challenged. Again, because of the First Amendment. The courts have identified that campaign contributions are part of free speech. You may put restrictions on that, however. We have in Iowa. We've said you can't contribute during the legislative session. We have not put a restriction on special sessions, though. That's never made sense to me. It should be at that level as well.

There could be some restrictions that are put on it, but I don't think you can completely ban it in total, because lobbyists are also citizens, and they have public interest as well. So I think there is a fine line there. I don't know whether that particular bill will get looked at. I would project, though, that if it were passed, it would be challenged in court.

Mundt: We've had, it seems like, periods in history when there has been a great deal of lobbying reform that has come through, generally driven either by a scandal or just a feeling of people wanting better government. We had a period of time in the 80's when some scandals occurred in Iowa. In the early 90's there were some moves to tighten things up. Are we about at that point -- I'll start with you, Charlie Smithson -- are we about at that point where we need to look at this more carefully again?

Smithson: I think we always need to look at it more closely. One thing that I have been encouraged by -- we've not had that level of scandal in Iowa lately, but you've had several people in the General Assembly, Representative Raecker being one of them, that wants to address problems before we have to be driven by a scandal, understanding that it's always in the public interest to have disclosure of these things.

I've been encouraged by the steps we've taken without having a scandal push us, like in some states. So for me, my job has actually become easier, because a lot of these guys want to be proactive on this.

Mundt: Representative Raecker, we've got about a minute.

Raecker: Well, I think exactly what Director Smithson is saying. I appreciate you giving time to this issue. It really flies under the radar screen.

For the last four or five years, we've actually done some fairly significant tweaks to the ethics rules and laws in Iowa. One of them is an example in the House. We've actually now had the rules mirror the Ethics Law, which they had not. And so we've done that. We did some fine tuning of reporting during session time for those that were hosting receptions for legislators.

So there are ongoing issues that we're trying to make positive steps each year. Those positive steps are so far below the radar screen. Typically they are bipartisan in nature, they are not controversial and they're not things that people are reading about in the media.

I think we can do even more with that, but we're also limited to the time we have. And you've got all these other very significant issues such as education and healthcare and public safety and the budget that we have to deal with, so they do rest at a lower level. And ethics is not important until there's a problem in most people's minds. I think we need to make sure that ethics is important every day, so we don't have a problem.

Tags: campaign finance Iowa lobbyists reform