You may have read — with a certain unease — that an array of special interests shelled out millions of dollars this year to try to persuade our state lawmakers in Nashville to vote one way or the other on all sorts of bills.
Besides all their other spending, different companies and organizations spent well over half a million dollars on just 75 breakfast, lunch and dinner receptions for lawmakers, the Times Free Press reported recently. And even those figures are on the low side, because the numbers were reported several weeks before the legislative session ended. The true amount spent will undoubtedly be a good bit higher when final totals come in.
So, do you think lobbyists are spending that money out of “the goodness of their hearts,” or do you think, more realistically, that they hope to get something for their time and money? We suspect it’s usually the latter.
Of course, businesses, advocacy groups and other organizations have a constitutional right to speak up on behalf of their interests. And unfortunately, sometimes they don’t dare remain silent. All too often, companies are put in a position of having to fend off bad legislation that might, for instance, impose burdensome taxes or regulations on them. We can understand, in those situations, why they may hire lobbyists to educate both lawmakers and the general public about the dangers of a particular piece of legislation. They don’t want their business harmed by unwise legislation.
And, by the same token, lobbyists may be hired not just to head off a bad bill but to promote worthy legislation in the General Assembly. It was encouraging, for example, that Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation this year to put a reasonable cap on noneconomic damages in personal injury lawsuits. While there should be full compensation for actual economic losses resulting from someone’s wrongful actions, out-of-control awards of noneconomic damages may not serve the cause of justice. And yet that worthwhile reform of lawsuits did not happen all by itself. Lobbying pressure from various business groups helped bring it about. So at times, lobbying can help accomplish good things.
Still, most Tennesseans and most Americans in general probably are uncomfortable with the thought of lawmakers being “wined and dined” by organizations that have a clear stake in a particular piece of legislation. There is the obvious, and at times sadly justified, concern that there may be actual promises by a lawmaker to vote a certain way in exchange for the support of an organization.
The best way to fight undue influence — without unconstitutionally limiting the free speech rights of businesses or advocacy organizations — is to have clear disclosure of who spent how much on whom. That allows the public to decide whether a lawmaker is being improperly influenced by lobbyists and special interests.
We freely admit that is not a perfect solution, but it is better than violating our Constitution’s First Amendment by silencing political speech.