Regulating Interest Groups

In the U.S., there are various federal and state laws designed to regulate interest groups, including laws that:

  • prevent lawmakers from lobbying the government on behalf of interest groups immediately after leaving public office (these are called revolving door laws)
  • require disclosure of spending on lobbying activities
  • restrict lobbyists from providing gifts to lawmakers
  • prevent interest groups from giving lobbyists an extra commission when they are successful in their lobbying efforts

Texas’s efforts to regulate organized interests began during the 1970s with the passage of the Lobbyist Registration Act, which sought to identify those who were attempting to influence legislation on behalf of client groups.  In the 1990s, the Texas Ethics Commission was created to monitor the activities of interest groups and lobbyists.  Interest groups and lobbyists must register with the Texas Ethics Commission if they:

  • receive at least $1000 in a calendar quarter (three month period) for engaging in communications with legislative or executive branch members, or 
  • spend more than $500 in a calendar quarter on communications aimed at influencing public policy (communications refers to a broad range of activities, including providing foods, beverages, gifts, and awards, fundraising, or mass media advertising)

Texas’s lobbying law, as outlined in Chapter 305 of the Government Code, regulates registered lobbyists’ direct communications to members of the Texas legislature or plural executive (direct communications from lobbyists to judges and local government officials may be regulated by other laws) and requires registered lobbyists to report lobbying expenditures relating to transportation and lodging, food and beverages, entertainment, awards and mementos, gifts other than awards and mementos, expenditures made for the attendance of a state official at a political fundraiser or charity event, and mass media (Texas Ethics Commission, Lobbying in Texas).  There are also laws in place that regulate political campaign contributions from lobbyists and interest groups and place restrictions on gifts to government officials working within the Texas legislature or state agencies (including public universities).

Ethics reform concerning lobbying continues to be an area of concern.  In 2015, Texas received a D- grade in the State Integrity Investigation.  Governor Abbott “made it clear during his campaign for governor that he would push for stronger laws to eliminate conflicts of interest and restore trust in the oft-maligned Legislature”, and, by identifying ethics reform as an emergency legislation item in 2015 and 2017, moved the issue “front and center [making] Abbott the first governor since Ann Richards, in the early 1990s, to put such an intense focus on the issue” (Root, 2015).  In 2015, “ethics reform imploded in the last few days of the session” (Root, April 2017).  In 2017, the broad ethics reform laws were passed:

“Elected officials who commit felonies while abusing their office will lose their public pensions. State officers and politicians who make money from government contracts will finally have to reveal their relationships. And lawmakers who leave the Legislature with fat campaign accounts will be restricted from using the cash to prop themselves up as lobbyists.” (Root, June 2017

In 2019, additional ethics reforms were passed that “impose new restrictions on lobbyists that relate to making political contributions or using political contributions to make political contributions or political expenditures” (Texas Ethics Commission, Lobbying in Texas).

There are several areas in which ethics reform has failed.  One such area relates to revolving door laws.  In federal government and many states, a “cooling off” period exists during which a former government official must wait a designated time after leaving public office before being able to accept a position as a lobbyist.  Texas’s revolving door laws place cooling off periods on “former board members, officers, and employees of certain agencies in the executive branch of state government” — there are no such restrictions on former state legislators or judges, however (Texas Ethics Commission, Revolving Door).

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