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Legalized Corruption Fueled the Death of Internet Privacy: The Problem is Worse at the State Level

Published: April 6, 2017
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The news that Internet service providers (ISPs) can sell your browsing history has been met with a lot of critical media coverage. However, few reporters have set their sights on the flow of money that helped set this legislation in motion.

In general, Internet privacy is a bipartisan issue among the American people. However, this was a partisan issue on Capitol Hill with Republican lawmakers supporting the bill. It was passed in the Senate and House by a very narrow margin, 50 to 48 and 215 to 205 respectively. With that said, there were 15 House Republicans who voted outside of their party lines to keep Internet privacy intact.

As you may have guessed, those 15 House Republicans received far less campaign money from the telecoms (AT&T, Comcast, etc.), which stand to benefit from selling your Internet history. A report by the non-profit organization, Center for Responsive Politics, showed that they received an average of $77,000 in contributions. Conversely, the other House Republicans received an average of $138,000. In other words, it appears that the telecoms executed an effective strategy for buying the necessary number of votes.  

The telecom industry has donated nearly $564,000 to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the author of this bill, over the course of eight terms in the House of Representatives. It’s possible that she will be voted out of office next term, but that’s unlikely. Then again, she is only one member of Congress and her removal will not solve the core issue of legalized corruption, which is a systemic problem. Even if Blackburn were to be voted out of office, she would likely be rewarded with a more lucrative career as a corporate lobbyist. 

AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon spent a combined $40.78 million in lobbying expenses last year. That helped to fund a trade group with a “doublespeak” name, the 21st Century Privacy Coalition. A total of 308 corporate lobbyists worked on behalf of these companies and 225 of them are part of the revolving door between government and the private sector. Of those 225 former government officials, ten of them are former members of Congress:

 

Don Nickles (R-OK)

Ron Klink (D-PA)

Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)

Jim McCrery (R-LA)

Vic Fazio (D-CA)

John Breaux (D-LA)

Trent Lott (R-MS)

Bob Livingston (R-LA)

Steven D Symms (R-ID)

Jack Fields (R-TX)

 

We need stronger rules in place to block politicians from becoming part of this revolving door. Otherwise, our elected officials have a powerful incentive to do the bidding of various special interest groups, not the public interest. As of now, U.S. Senators can’t lobby their former colleagues for two years after leaving office and former U.S. Representatives have a one-year delay. This “cooling-off period” is a bare minimum regulation because it doesn’t block the revolving door; it only slows down the process.

Unfortunately, this problem is worse at the state level. Wisconsin is one of the sixteen states that allow politicians to become paid lobbyists immediately after leaving office. Jay Heck, the director of a non-profit group Common Cause Wisconsin, has been trying for two decades to persuade his state’s lawmakers to make a change. He told The Washington Times that many lawmakers haven’t bothered to hide their self-interest when objecting to Heck’s proposal. He’s heard, “Well, what else would we do.” 

On the bright side, Wisconsin has a pending bill that would mandate a one-year cooling-off period. However, this is essentially the same bill from 2013 that didn’t receive a hearing. There was a hearing for the bill in 2015, but it was never put up for a vote.

There seems to be more bipartisan backing this time around, but one key player has yet to support this proposal -- Scott Fitzgerald, Wisconsin’s Senate Majority Leader. After all, he’s more than familiar with this subject. His brother, Jeff, is the former Speaker of the Assembly who became a corporate lobbyist two days after leaving office in 2013.

Michigan also doesn’t have a mandatory cooling-off period. An excellent article by Petoskey News-Review, a local newspaper of Northern Michigan, pointed to two former State Representatives who tried to establish a mandatory waiting period. Unfortunately, neither bill received enough votes to become law, but there was an ironic twist to this article. Both co-sponsors of the bill, Lesia Liss and Paul Opsommer, began working as lobbyists, three months and five months respectively after they left office.

Making matters worse, there are glaring conflicts of interest related to their revolving door exits. While in office, Opsommer adamantly obstructed a public works project that was opposed by his current employer. Likewise, Liss once served on a health care committee that she now lobbies for an insurance company.

Again, a 1 or 2-year cooling-off period is a fairly minor restriction. As a matter of fact, it can be a mere formality in some cases; there are ways around these restrictions. (This was covered in more detail in my article from two weeks ago, “Revolving door lobbyists are exploiting the rules.”)

For example, a prominent former member of the New York State Assembly, Keith Wright, joined a powerful law and lobbying group this January, two days after his term ended. State law bars him from lobbying his former colleagues in the Senate or Assembly for two years. However, a blog, State of Politics, astutely pointed out that Wright can immediately lobby the Governor’s office without violating any rules.

Likewise, an influential former North Carolina State Senator, Tom Apodaca, began working with his former colleagues in January as a lobbyist. Oddly enough, Apodaca, who was the Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, wouldn’t be in his current place without skirting the rules. By resigning before his term expired, he avoided the state’s mandatory six-month cooling-off period. He’s now representing companies, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, which helped finance his campaigns.

In fairness, Tom Apodaca didn’t create this loophole to avoid the cooling-off period; it was the State Ethics Committee. But, bear in mind, that’s the same Ethics Committee that infamously ruled that sex between lobbyists and officials didn’t need to be disclosed because these relationships are not “reportable expenditures made for lobbying.”

By the way, that name, Tom Apodaca, may sound familiar to you. He has made national headlines in the past with another story that demonstrated how money clearly corrupts politics. Notably, Apodaca sponsored an “anti-Tesla” bill in 2013 after receiving the maximum donation ($8,000) from the North Carolina Auto Dealers Association. That law required car buyers to make their purchase through an auto dealership, not online, which nullified Tesla’s business model.

All in all, efforts need to be made for systemic changes at the state and federal level to prevent special interest groups from gaining undue influence. In an ideal world, there would be a lifetime ban on lobbying for former members of Congress. However, a compromise bill with a much lengthier waiting period could become reality if there was enough popular support. The problem is that the general public isn’t widely aware of the corrupting influence from the revolving door.

This is one of multiple reforms that need to be made to improve the integrity of our political system. Otherwise, we’ll continue to see more bills, such as the one that was signed into law this Monday, which established a market for purchasing everyone’s browsing history. That’s much like the way in which our elected officials can be legally purchased by the highest bidder.

Brian Saady is the author of the three-book series, Rackets, which is about the legalization of drugs & gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution. www.briansaady.com. You can follow him on Twitter @briansaady.

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