The influence game: Lobbyists wine, dine lawmakers after hours

May 2, 2013

In the first three months of this year, lobbyists in Washington state spent more than $200,000 on entertainment. Much of that money was spent to wine and dine state lawmakers during the just-concluded 105-day session.

The spending begs the question: What are lobbyists and their clients getting in exchange for picking up the tab?

'Getting to know folks on a one-to-one basis’

The din of a restaurant is a sound many lobbyists and lawmakers are quite familiar with. After the legislative day ends up at the Capitol, it’s pretty common for some of the players to decamp. They go to one of a handful of usually higher-end Olympia establishments.

This is where—over a meal, perhaps a bottle of Washington wine—the work continues, “getting to know folks on a one-to-one basis,” says Steve Gano, a veteran business lobbyist with clients like Wal-Mart, MillerCoors beers and AT&T.

From January through March of this year, Gano spent more than $6,000 on entertainment, according to reports he files with Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission. That puts Gano in the top 10 of lobbyist entertainers (see a list of this year's top lobbyists).

I asked him what’s the value of breaking bread with a lawmaker? Gano turned the question back on me.

“What was the first event you took your wife on?” he asked.

The answer: “Dinner date.”

“You went on a dinner date. And you did that because you wanted to get together to know each other,” said Gano. “I’m not suggesting I’m going to propose to any of these folks.”

But Gano says a meal together is a way to learn about each other’s backgrounds, like a date. Ultimately that helps in what he calls the “communications process.”

Lobbyist opens home to legislators

I should mention Gano works with his wife, and they own a house right across the street from the Capitol campus. Instead of taking lawmakers out to dinner they often host at their home. In fact, recently, Gano and his wife held an open house after a key legislative deadline. Among those who dropped by was House Public Safety chairman Roger Goodman, a Democrat.

“It was a lovely spring late afternoon on the deck of the house of our more prominent lobbyists, and they were serving a lot of Coors-Miller products,” said Goodman.

There was even a representative of the company in attendance.

One of the big controversies in the legislature this year was whether to continue an expiring beer tax. Gano was lobbying against it. Another big topic: drunk driving. In fact, Goodman has been leading the charge to crackdown on repeat drunk drivers.

So picture the scene: the chair of the House Public Safety Committee standing on the porch of the house of the beer lobbyist, holding a beer. Is that a problem?

“Personally, I am not persuaded one way or the other by being wined and dined or given my favorite bottle of beer,” said Goodman. “The way I operate is I look at each issue and each person one at a time independent from one another. So, I was perfectly willing to drink a Coors product and still favor increasing beer taxes.”

Goodman adds there are actually studies that make a connection between higher beer taxes and fewer DUI fatalities. Nonetheless, one week after the open house, Washington House Democrats abandoned their proposal to extend the beer tax.

I asked Gano about the timing:  Is there any connection to the fact that the beer tax fell out of their tax package a week after you had them over for a beer?

“No, if it was that simple to offer someone a beer to kill the beer tax, we would have done it a long time ago,” Gano said.

In fact, Democrats faced a barrage of opposition not only from big beer makers, but also from local microbrewers and beer distributors.

Wine + dine = vote? Not exactly

Everyone I talked to, not surprisingly, said there is no quid pro quo; meals—or beers—don’t buy votes. But I was also repeatedly reminded that politics is about relationships. Let’s bring in another longtime lobbyist who also entertains lawmakers, Michael Temple.

“I’ve been involved with the Legislature, I must admit, since 1979. So I’ve been down here for a while,” Temple said.

Temple is best known for lobbying on behalf of Washington’s trial lawyers. He says he works incredibly complex issues like workers compensation. So, Temple likes to schedule dinners where he can have a more detailed and nuanced conversation.

Reports show in the first three months of this year, he spent nearly $2,600 on entertainment. So this is the question: How do meals out affect what happens up at the Capitol?

Temple gives this example. He takes a lawmaker or two to dinner. 

“So then, a week from now, all of a sudden an amendment comes up in a committee. And they’re walking into a committee hearing, and you now only have three minutes to walk with them between one hearing room and the next. It makes it much easier for them to understand that they can trust the information you’re providing them,” he said.

'An unfair advantage’

This is exactly what troubles Mary Boyle with the watchdog group Common Cause in Washington, D.C.

“We would see it as kind of an unfair advantage that lobbyists have over, you know, ordinary members of the public,” she said.

In an ideal world, Boyle says lawmakers would pay for their own dinners. Washington legislators are entitled to $90 a day in per diem when they are in session. And some do split the check.

So here’s the big picture. It’s not uncommon for Washington lobbyists to spend more than $500,000 on entertainment in a year. It’s not every lobbyist. It’s not every lawmaker. But it breaks down to an average of more than $3,000 per legislator.