The Tryranny of Good Intentions: AB 2795

I don't know whether the essayist Samuel Johnson (1709 -1784), ever really said, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" or "hell is paved with good intentions." But I'm pretty sure Samuel Johnson never read AB 2795 (Blakeslee). This well-intended measure purports to extend to lobbyist employers a 1974 law that prohibits lobbyists from spending more than $10 on a lawmaker or statewide official for lunch or dinner. However, if Johnson ever did read AB 2795, the measure would be a candidate for the "paved with good intentions" award.

Let's not even get into the silliness of a law that claims to cap lobbyist-legislator luncheon spending to a 34-year-old standard. I'm not a lobbyist so I can tell the truth: Enforcement of the current $10 limit reminds me of my daughter Eva playing the viola. She pretended to play the viola in a high school orchestra and I pretended to attend her recitals. If ever there was a well-intended law gone to rot it's this so-called $10 limit law. Now a legislator claims to want to tack another unenforceable restriction on a largely unenforced 1974 law that is shot through with more regulatory exceptions than the IRS code. God bless the Highway Patrol for finally standing up a few years ago and asking the Legislature to repeal the 55 MPH limit. Otherwise drivers would be pretending to drive 55 MPH and the CHP would still be pretending to stop them. Laws that go unenforced – or laws, which are unenforceable, – breed disrespect for the law.

In his zeal to end "luncheon abuses" the author of AB 2795 has introduced a bill that would outlaw the annual California Newspaper Publishers Association's legislative luncheon. The Lung Association would be prohibited from offering legislators food during its conferences. The Sierra Club could take legislators back packing, they couldn't feed them. And even the mother of the original Political Reform Act provision, Common Cause, would have to stop inviting legislators to its fundraising dinners.

If the Legislature really wanted to "restore the public's confidence" in public officials, it would never seriously consider a press release bill like AB 2795. Under the terms of the voter approved 1974 initiative that created the Political Reform Act, any statutory change requires a 2/3 vote of both houses of the Legislator. Come on now… let's not kid a kidder. You've got as much chance of seeing this bill become law as you do seeing the Legislature cut the pay of the powerful prison guards union.

Here's the record of nearly 40 years of these so-called reforms. With term limits and a Common Cause-backed Legislators Compensation Commission, California now has some of the best-paid, least competent, legislators in the country. There is virtually no conflict of interest law for legislators or statewide officials. The Political Reform Act's patchwork of civil code provisions and would-be restrictions look more like Swiss cheese than a solid body of law.

If the Legislature were serious about reform it would move to throw out half of our so-called reforms and restore strict campaign disclosure laws, crackdown on independent committees and make it felony for either the contributor or the candidate to intentionally conceal the source of a campaign contribution. I regret to admit I have been part of almost every so-called reform of this system in the last 40 years. It ain't politically correct to say it and you won't read it in the newspapers, but more than half the "public confidence" problems we face are the products and consequences of well-intended reforms that didn't quite work out. Check the history of "prosecutions" or enforcement actions of the $10 limit law. I'll buy lunch if there's been two in 20 years. The answer isn't to tack more unenforceable provisions on this unenforced 34-year-old law. But what "if" it worked and legislators would never sit down again and eat lunch with lobbyists and their clients? To quote the immortal words of the Dallas Cowboys greatest quarterback, Don Meredith:

"If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a Merry Christmas?"

I would simply settle for a tough disclosure law that would at least tell the public about the millions of dollars moving from who to whom and give up on the nickel and dime shit.

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