Cooling off bill heats up Capitol controversy, gets shelved

Image by Stuart Miles via Shutterstock

A bill to slow the revolving door of legislative staffers to lobbyist firms has been shelved after sexual harassment victims’ advocates expressed opposition.

Sen. Aisha Wahab’s Senate Bill 573 would have originally prohibited legislative staff from working for lobbying firms for two years after leaving the capitol. The current bill, which was under consideration in the Appropriations Committee, cuts the “cooling-off period” to one year and would be applied to staff on a more issue-specific basis.

Members of We Said Enough, a harassment victims’ group, said the cooling off period could prevent victims from pursuing “natural career pathways” if they have to leave their Capitol jobs to flee sexual abuse or bullying.

But Wahab said her bill has nothing to do with victims’ rights.

“To be using victims as props to not have lobbying reform in the state of California is disgusting and not fair to them,” she told the senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee during an April 18th hearing. A similar cooling off period is already in place for legislators.

She said her bill is needed to preserve the integrity of the legislative body and limit perceived corruption. “This bill is critical in maintaining trust in our legislative processes,” she said.

Chris Micheli, an adjunct professor at McGeorge School of Law, said Wahab’s initial proposal was over-broad because it applied to hundreds of legislative staffers with limited power and influence. The cooling-off period makes more sense for department directors who make decisions on awarding contracts or procurement, he said. “There’s a little bit of the proverbial mixing apples with oranges,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think it’s fair to limit job opportunities to less influential legislative staff.

But Thomas Holyoke, political science professor at Fresno State University, said he understands the desire to delay the time that legislative staff can cash in on their relationships with legislators. He pointed out that the chiefs of staff and legislative directors, which Wahab initially wanted to target, are very influential positions.

“A chief of staff is the alter ego of the member and handles a lot of the member’s affairs and does a lot of work on behalf of the member,” he said. “The legislative director plots strategy for the members. In my opinion, these are very important positions where a lot of decisions are made.”

“There’s a little bit of the proverbial mixing apples with oranges.”

People who leave those jobs can get hired by lobbying firms for powerful corporations. “A lot of these lobbyists get paid huge amounts of money per hour,” Holyoke said.  Thus, these corporations often get better access to legislators than others, which isn’t good for the public, he said.

Samantha Corbin, co-founder of We Said Enough and a partner of lobbying firm Corbin and Kaiser, told the senate elections and constitutional amendments committee, that Wahab’s bill was unnecessary and overly burdensome. “This would eliminate job opportunities in most major industries, Fortune 500 companies, and major law firms, leaving options only outside the field or nonprofits which typically pay below market rate,” she said in regards to the original bill.

Alicia Benavidez Lewis, co-founder of We Said Enough and principal in Blue Coast Strategies lobbying firm, told the committee the bill would hurt harassment victims. “This would force them into staying in unhealthy situations by denying them access to that which they are well qualified for,” she said.

Wahab’s revised bill applies the one-year cooling off period to employees who make decisions that may “foreseeably have a material effect on any financial interest.” Those employees would be prohibited for 12 months from lobbying state administrative agencies that they formerly worked for.

Wahab didn’t agree that her original bill would have blocked off all access to employment for legislative staff. “To say this town only has jobs as lobbyists is a straight-up lie,” she told the senate elections and constitutional amendment committee. “There are plenty of jobs out there.”

She argued that the legislature has a moral obligation to make sure its staff has the highest level of ethics and integrity.

“Of course staff don’t like it,” she said. “But we need to do what’s best for California.”

Neither Wahab or the We Said Enough advocates responded to requests for an interview. But Wahab’s comments in the April 18 hearing for SB 573 drew a sharp rebuke from some We Said Enough supporters, who said the freshman senator’s accusations toward Corbin and Benavidez were out of line and even could be considered bullying. In a Twitter post, Assemblymember Tina McKinnor said Wahab owed the two “a public apology.”

Politico’s Lara Korte reported this morning that Wahab has opted to delay seeking further action on the bill until next January.

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