Friday, May 30, 2008

Every day is lobby day in Lansing

John Kelly is old-school, God love him. The former state senator wasn't afraid to tell interest groups where to go.

You might recall that three decades ago, Chrysler was ready to go belly-up. The No. 3 automaker demanded $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees, as well as a $150 million loan from the state of Michigan and hundreds of millions in worker concessions. Oh, and six Detroit-area plants would get the ax.

That's where Kelly drew the line. As state Senate Banking Committee chairman, the Democrat told then-CEO Lee Iacocca the factories would stay open if he wanted his check.

"I had a hundred bankers in my office telling me I couldn't do that," Kelly recalls. "I told them all to back off."

In the end, Kelly triumphed and helped save 38,000 jobs. And yes, there was unreal tension and recall threats, same as what paralyzed the Legislature for months during last year's budget crisis. But that didn't faze him.

"You have to muster up the courage to do the right thing. You can shut the government down, but it goes to the institution's credibility," Kelly says pointedly. "People think you're a bunch of idiots."

In that magical time before term limits, lawmakers would actually write some of their bills or at least know what was in them. Committee chairs had real expertise in their fields, as opposed to today when sophomore House members, who've just mastered where the bathrooms are in the Capitol, run the show.

To say there's a leadership void in Lansing is a vast understatement.

That's why I hear these crass words far too often in committee meetings: "I'd like to thank the interest groups for helping us write the legislation."

It makes my blood boil.

That's gross incompetence at best and utter contempt for the democratic process at worst. At $80,000 per year plus perks, lawmakers should be able to do their own damn research without handholding (or handing over the pen) to lobbyists, who have their client's best interest in mind - not necessarily that of 10 million Michiganders.

Does anyone really think this is how government should work?

It's no wonder voters feel ignored - especially those of us in the middle. Republicans are beholden to Right to Life and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, while Democrats can't say no to the Michigan Education Association and UAW.

When lawmakers do bite the hand that feeds them - like on tax increases or school health insurance reform - lobbyists scream like their entire family was slaughtered and threaten to withhold money, endorsements and job offers.

And the beat goes on.

On Tuesday, the House once again demonstrated its uncanny ability to take up completely irrelevant measures while our economically annihilated state burns. The federal partial-birth abortion ban has been on the books since 2003, but Right to Life held the chamber hostage to push what lawmakers admit is duplicate legislation.

The bill is light on medicine but heavy on incendiary rhetoric, because this isn't about the rarest of rare procedures, dilation and extraction, reserved for when the mother's life is in danger. It's about politics and an organization desperate for a victory when many of its own members find its position on embryonic stem cell research medieval.

"I believe this is truly a sad day in the history of the Michigan Legislature," sighed state Rep. Rebekkah Warren, D-Ann Arbor. "We're letting a special interest dictate the actions of this Legislature."

Actually, it's just another day in paradise. Almost daily, groups from the Michigan Propane Gas Association to the American Cancer Society cram the Capitol and miraculously, new legislation often follows.

But Kelly hit upon something when speaking to a group of tobacco lobbyists years ago. No legislator on the panel was willing to look them in the eye and tell them the truth: Smoking bans were coming and they'd better get used to them. Never a wallflower, Kelly told them the score and was promptly thanked by several of Big Tobacco's finest.

Nowadays in Lansing, legislators lack the gravitas to tell special interests where they stand and just vote their conscience. That kind of gumption wasn't unique to Kelly, by the way; former Gov. John Engler wrote the book on it.

So dear legislators, it wouldn't hurt to think for yourselves once and awhile. You just might like it.

There is a fatal flaw in the current warped situation. If interest groups have carte blanche to write laws, Kelly notes they'll start wondering, "Why am I paying these people $100,000 if I can do it myself?"

It completely negates the need for lobbyists, one of the few growth occupations in Michigan. Little wonder that lobbyists routinely wax nostalgic for the good ole days pre-term limits and the Chamber has sounded the battle cry to extend them.

A few fair fights never hurt anyone. For lobbyists, they even can be good for business.

1 comment:

Ken Hreha said...

Ms. Demas;

Excellent column. I agree with your points wholeheartly. Beholden is a dangerous word these day in the political realm.

Former Michigan Senator John Kelly was one on my best professors when he taught at Oakland University. Students passionate about good governance learned a whole lot about trianglation and working with the loyal opposition from him. It is a class that Michigan's Big Three political leaders: Granholm, Dillon and Bishop needed to take. He was big on reciprocity.

Kelly also once told me about his interaction with Lee Iacocca and it always stuck in my mind. That's one of the foundations of my criticism of Granholm's neglect of neither keeping, nor attracting good jobs for Michigan. Her administration is quite a disappointment, and I'm speaking as a former volunteer for her 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

Ken Hreha