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Capitol Perspectives: A Different Perspective on Lobbyists

Phill Brooks
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The dome shines brightly on the Missouri State Capitol as the sun begins to set in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

The dome shines brightly on the Missouri State Capitol as the sun begins to set in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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Secretary of State Jason Kander had an interesting observation when he announced his proposal to restrict special interest money in government and politics.

“It’s easy for politicians to vilify lobbyists,” Kander said. “Ironically ethics reform is likely more popular among lobbyists in Jefferson City than it is among legislators.”

I tend to agree with Kander’s impression. I’ve heard some lobbyists complain at how they feel pressured to make campaign contributions and pick up the meal tabs for legislators.

For some lobbyists such as those just starting with a small client base or representing non-profit groups, the statehouse culture and expectations of lobbyist gift-giving can be onerous.

Years ago, a beginning lobbyist quickly discovered how far it can go. Soon after starting as a lobbyist, he invited a small group of legislators out to lunch.

One of the legislators said a prior commitment prevented him from joining. But then, as the lobbyist told the story, the legislator immediately asked the lobbyist for a credit card so the lawmaker could purchase his lunch on the lobbyist’s tab later in the day.

Not all lobbyists, I’m sure, feel burdened by the spending expectations. Some have deep pockets from the high fees they charge clients or by representing clients that can provide legislative perks free of charge.

That was the case for John Britton, the state’s longest serving lobbyist.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

Britton was a weekly source of large amounts of beer delivered every Friday to legislative offices. It was no problem for Britton because the Anheuser-Busch brewery has been one of his long-time clients. So, Britton just had the local beer distributor make the deliveries of his client’s beer to the statehouse.

Britton is an example some of the misconceptions about lobbyists, particularly that they are interested only in the profit-making interests of their clients. That has not been the case for Britton.

Years ago, he told me how he always would be looking for promising new legislators whom he would take under his wing to learn how the process worked. He held weekly seminars at his home.

He’d lobby for their bills, even ones not necessarily in his clients’ interests. He also lobbied to make the legislative process itself more effective and efficient.

Skeptics argued that by mentoring junior legislators, Britton was building a base for future influence. There is some truth to that argument. Among Britton’s “students” were legislators who rose to the most powerful positions in the General Assembly.

Whatever the reason, in his prime years, Britton was recognized as the state’s most powerful lobbyist.

Critics charged it was because of Britton that Missouri has one of the nation’s lowest taxes on beer. With the tobacco industry as one of his clients in years past, smoking restrictions were dead on arrival in the legislature.

In fact, the Missouri Senate once passed a resolution declaring Britton his own designated smoking area while wandering the legislative hallways. It was no joke. Britton openly smokes in a non-smoking hallway area just outside the Senate chamber.

I don’t think any type of limit on lobbyist expenditures would have had much affect on Britton’s influence. His power did not come primarily from expenditures as much as it arose from those personal friendships with legislators.

The kind of long-term personal relationships lobbyists like Britton were able to develop have been undercut by legislative term limits.

But there is a compensation. There now is a large body of lobbyists with a far deeper understanding than legislators about how the legislative process works, how to kill or pass bills, how to write bills and the history of legislative issues.

Britton occasionally still works the legislative hallways. But after more than half a century as a lobbyist, the WWII veteran who parachuted into the war has slowed down. His staff have taken on more of the work.

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