A new Governor and Legislature offer the perfect opportunity to re-think the Trenton status quo and for experienced observers and practitioners to offer their best ideas on improving the public policy process and state government systems.
It may seem incongruous for someone who has been a registered lobbyist in the past to propose lobbying reforms, but I think those of us who are experienced in Trenton have to acknowledge that the current reporting and regulatory structure for lobbying in NJ is broken, and desperately needs more transparency, oversight, and best practices.
Because public policy in New Jersey, as in all states and in Washington DC, is shaped at least in part by “registered governmental affairs agents,” or lobbyists, working on their clients’ or employers’ behalf, I think it’s in the public interest that:
a) The ethical perception of this industry be improved
b) The quality of this profession be improved with higher professional standards, experience, and best practices
c) There be greater public disclosure and transparency of actual lobbying activity, than is currently required by regulation.
While day-to-day lobbying is not a primary focus of and only incidental to my own organization, we believe strongly in lobbying reform as part of our corporate mission to improve the quality of public policy in New Jersey and help Governor Christie and the Legislature accomplish their objectives in an atmosphere of greater transparency and openness.
Many observers agree that the quality of NJ’s lobbying profession today has experienced a decline. Thousands of agents with virtually no government experience whatsoever are running around Trenton with a cheaply-bought registration badge as their only credential.
Anyone with $400 for a registration fee can become an agent. No experience or minimum competency is required. It is an invitation for those without experience to enter this profession and dilute not only the quality of the industry, but worse to impair the quality of information transmitted between clients and the government, hurting the process, and inviting public opprobrium.
Because the quality of the profession has been so watered-down and is populated with people who have less substance and experience than in the past, it has appeared to me that the industry as a whole has been more susceptible to the idea that political influence peddling, and not policy substance and credibility, is the key to Trenton policy-making.
While the vast majority of lobbyists certainly do not fall into this category, the prevalence of the ones who do suggests that standards need to be raised and the public’s trust restored.
To accomplish this, I propose the following for consideration:
1. All registered agents as individuals, and the organizations for which they are employees (lobbying firms, law firms, corporations with in-house lobbyists, trade associations, etc) should be subjected to the same “pay to play” campaign contribution limits and restrictions imposed on state governmental vendors. These restrictions should be imposed as a condition of holding a state license or certification (described below).
2. Create a Professional Certification or License for Government Affairs Agent. Prospective agents should have to meet minimum competency and experience standards before getting a license. A written examination to confirm minimal knowledge of NJ’s government and political structures should be considered. Perhaps there can be several levels of license, depending on one’s experience in government. Former college interns probably should not have the same certification as former Cabinet Members or former Legislators.
3. Move lobbying regulation to the Department of Law and Public Safety, out of ELEC. It is more appropriate for the Attorney General to oversee and police this profession, as it does for other licensed professionals.
4. To improve transparency, require agents to disclose each and every lobbying “event” and “contact” with all government officials, even telephone conversations, in which client business is discussed. The current disclosure does not require listing each contact and therefore is vague and general, not specific.
5. Require agents to disclose the outcome or end result of the regulation, policy, or legislation they were seeking to influence. Did the bill pass? Did the regulation get changed? These should be disclosed by the agent.
6. More disclosure and transparency —- Tighten the “lawyer loophole” in the lobbying regulations. There are certain transactions and contacts between lawyers and government which are not required to be reported, but might trigger reporting if conducted by non-lawyers.
While I respect the privilege that exists between an attorney and a client, why is the public entitled to less transparency when a party is represented by a law firm for those transactions that would otherwise be reportable for someone else?
A new standard can be developed that protects legitimate attorney/client privileged relationships in quasi-judicial or purely legal transactions, but still ensures disclosure and regulation of those activities which are advocating policy changes or other state approvals or decisions.
In sum, we should take the new Governor at his word that he wants to “turn Trenton upside down.” These lobbying reforms would go a long way toward doing just that.