This editorial ran in today's Knoxville News Sentinel. I was so impressed with this article on lobbyists in Tennessee's state government that I'm going to, um, borrow it. I'm sure things are exactly the same at the national level.
Nashville's red-light district
Darkness crept closer, hopelessness weighed heavier and filth fouled our souls as we walked deeper into the red-light district of Amsterdam. Stepping over heroin addicts, our guide Jim prepared us for the sight of lingerie-clad girls sitting behind plate-glass windows waiting for their next customer.
Jim was a missionary in Amsterdam in the early 1990s, and he took us to the world-famous place of prostitution to ask us to pray. Jim explained that many of the girls were naive immigrants from South America, lured to Holland by unseen and unseemly men with the promise of money to help the people back home.
Promised noble work, the girls were overwhelmed by a new culture, cut off from family and dependent on the unscrupulous men who skulked in the shadows, profiting from the girls behind the glass. Jim was a pinpoint of light shining a flicker of hope for the whores in Holland.
The despairing darkness, heavy hopelessness and film of filth I felt in the Netherlands had long receded, but hearing lobbyists Mark Greene and John Lyell talk to Gov. Phil Bredesen's Citizens Advisory Group on Ethics in Chattanooga last week brought it all rushing back.
Greene, president of the Tennessee Lobbyists Association, got his start in state government as an intern for Lt. Gov. John Wilder. Greene joked about lobbyists' tawdry reputation before warning the committee to tread lightly when considering any type of lobbyist fee disclosure.
Lyell, a Nashville lobbyist and lawyer, wasn't officially invited but sat beside Greene, prompting panel member Larry Wallace, former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director, to ask if Lyell was Greene's attorney. Lyell has a history of sitting where he shouldn't. In April, he sat at the same table with lawmakers while a subcommittee killed a lobbyist disclosure law.
Lyell came out combative and came off obstinate, arrogant, defiant and disrespectful. In his opening statement, Lyell attacked the idea of lobbyist fee reform. Referring to contingency fees lobbyists collect only if they successfully influence the Legislature on behalf of their client, he blustered, "I'm really somewhat incensed that that's at issue here."
Lyell said he doesn't want anyone trying to run his business and that it is nobody's business - neither the public nor the press - how much he is paid to influence how taxpayer dollars are spent and which laws are passed.
When Lyle Reid, former state Supreme Court justice, asked, "Why do we need lobbyists?" the lobbyists said our part-time legislators need help to help the people back home.
Greene said lobbyists' advice lightens the workload for legislators faced with 3,000 bills per session. Lyell said lobbyists know the procedure and the process for drafting laws. Both tellingly described how lobbyists cultivate dependency on them with legislators.
When Reid asked how the poor, the uneducated and the unorganized could participate in the political process if legislators are beholden to high-priced lobbyists, Greene concluded that lobbyist pay disclosure won't change the plight of the poor. When committee member Paul Neely asked why the public shouldn't know lobbyists' fees if lobbyists are so involved in the process, Lyell ranted, "You don't need to know what (clients) pay me."
Darkness crept closer as Lyell and Greene talked. But light flickered when Rep. Tommie Brown of Chattanooga rose to speak. Brown said her district is home to the poor, the uneducated and the unorganized that Lyell and Greene dismissed. She told about her "Covenant with the People" which promises them, "I will be (your) voice."
Brown said she has no access to big-time bills, no influence with big-time lobbyists. Her voice cracked as she told of laboring on legislation to help the poor only to have a high-powered lobbyist kill hope with a few whispers.
Brown represents all that's good about our democratic system - doing what's right because it's right, helping the less fortunate, shining a light of hope. Like Jim in Amsterdam.
Lyell and Greene represent all that's wrong with our democratic system - doing what's profitable because it's profitable, helping the fortunate build more fortune, dealing in the dark. Like the men skulking in the shadows in the red-light district.
Leaving legislators and Tennesseans trapped, like the girls behind the glass.
Greg Johnson is an East Tennessee native and resident and writes this column for the News Sentinel. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.