March on Harrisburg, a grassroots organization, hosts a rally on the Capitol steps to urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to pass the gift ban. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)
In 2015, a scandal rocked the Pennsylvania Legislature, with police arresting four lawmakers for accepting money from a lobbyist in return for political favors.
It sparked outrage among both legislators and the general public. Several lawmakers said they were stunned to find nothing illegal about accepting gifts, even money. The only thing illegal about these bribes was that lawmakers took them in exchange for political favors.
In the wake of the scandal, there was a significant push to ban cash gifts along with other ethics reforms.
While action seemed imminent at one point, apathy soon set in, and lawmakers failed to pass anything of substance, particularly the ban on cash gifts. The fever which arose from the scandals evaporated over time as the issue faded from public view.
Calls for the ban and other ethics reforms have risen to the forefront from time to time, with nothing ever happening.
So, it was interesting to see that the House State Government Committee recently passed a package of bills, including limiting gifts from lobbyists and prohibiting lobbyists from trying to influence an elected official for whom they also worked as a campaign strategist.
The bills will require floor votes in both the House and Senate to get to Gov. Tom Wolf.
One of the centerpiece bills would bar state officials, including lawmakers, from letting lobbyists pay for their transportation, lodging, recreation or entertainment, and limiting lobbyist gifts to $250 in value each year.
Wolf banned employees under his jurisdiction from accepting gifts of any amount when he first took office in 2015.
However, according to the Associated Press, lawmakers still allow themselves to accept gifts in unlimited quantities from anyone seeking to influence them,
The AP added that lobbyists, clients, and trade associations in Pennsylvania also routinely provide lawmakers with free meals, travel, and tickets to sporting events, destination conferences, or entertainment venues.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, most other states have laws limiting the extent of gifts that lawmakers may accept.
Gift-ban legislation has been introduced before and seen no action. A bill with limits passed a House committee in 2019 but died without a floor vote.
However, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, has spoken in favor of the bills. Cutler expressed his support for the measures some 15 years after introducing the Legislature’s first lobbying reform package.
“I announced my support for this package earlier this session, and today is an important next step to remind the lobbying community that if they want to continue to play a role in our processes, they will be held to the highest standards,” he said.
However, the Senate has unveiled its own set of lobbying reform bills without a gift ban.
The Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported that a spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, declined to say whether he supports the gift ban, but said the door on additional reforms remains open.
So, is there any chance of fundamental reforms finally being enacted?
Well, almost definitely not this year. The House will only be in session for nine days until the end of 2021, and the Senate only six.
There would appear to be little time to try and break the deadlock between the Senate and the House. Plus, lawmakers will probably hold various committee hearings to iron out all the bills’ issues and questions.
Whether the bill advances in 2022 will depend on many other factors, namely how much time Republicans spend on fighting vaccine mandates and trying to push for changes in election laws.
While there is bipartisan support for the ethics changes, it could also fall victim to the bitter partisanship in Harrisburg. If things get hot and heavy as they did in 2021, there will be precious little time to vote on ethics changes.
Meanwhile, the liberal grassroots group MarchOnHarrisburg has pressured lawmakers for a ban on gifts and cutbacks on the power of lobbyists. In recent years, they’ve even interrupted legislative voting sessions and shouted “stop taking bribes” at lawmakers.
The group’s executive director, Michael Pollack, told the Capital-Star, that reform proposals unveiled recently “a snowball” that doesn’t even begin to address the “avalanche” of issues around money in politics.
How much power this group will have in the coming election year will be something to watch. On the one hand, with all House seats and half of the Senate’s posts on the ballot in 2022, the group might be able to spur lawmakers into action.
On the other hand, lawmakers usually hate to vote on anything of substance in an election year for fear that it could backfire on them.
In the end, it’s good that Democrats and Republicans can agree on at least some of the proposed reforms. That’s a welcome relief from the ugly bitterness which has engulfed both chambers in the past two years.
But the real battle on this issue isn’t between Republicans and Democrats, who generally support no cash gifts. The real fight on this issue is between Republicans in the House and Senate.
Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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