My Hawaii Monitor column in Civil Beat this week looks at the issue of gifts and gifting. More specifically, the question of how the State Ethics Commission interprets and applies the gift provisions of the state ethics code (see, “Hawaii Monitor: Is It Time for a Review of Political Gift-Giving?“).
I can see different sides on this question.
On the one hand, small gifts aren’t likely to corrupt, and are often just common sense courtesies, reflecting the local style of “don’t go visiting empty handed.” I would go further. If I invite someone else to lunch, I’ll usually pay. My idea, my treat. If the other person happens to be an elected representative, should that be different? I’m not at all sure.
On the other hand, there’s no question that those in the business of influencing legislative decisions–I’m talking about lobbyists here–aren’t simply being courteous. They are investing in relationships with the managers of legislative offices, key staffers, and elected officials. No smoking sushi here, but I’m sure they see gift-giving as a means to an end. The purpose is instrumental rather than expressive.
Gifts, even small ones, plant obligations on those who accept them. Whether you think that’s good or bad is a separate question, I suppose.
Do gifts influence decisions that public officials make? I don’t know. But I do think they do affect the decision-making process when used by lobbyists to increase access and influence.
Perhaps it’s not the gift itself, but the source and the meaning.
Perhaps there should be a ban on gifts of any kind from lobbyists. Period. No boxes of manapua or pastries. No lunches. No questions.
Others could still offer what the State Ethics Commission calls “Gifts of Aloha”.
And would that really make a difference when those same lobbyists could still deliver “gifts” of campaign support, whether in the form of contributions, volunteers, or “in-kind” donations of food or drink, as long as those gifts went to the campaign rather than to the office holder.
Is the attempt to strictly regulate gifts just tilting at windmills, a futile effort to control a visible but, in reality, minor source of political influence?
And don’t you suppose the gifts that really matter are the ones no one acknowledges, the “off the record,” behind the scenes transactions that aren’t reported on those gift disclosure forms?
I admit it. I’m as confused as anyone else about what’s the most reasonable way of protecting the integrity of public decision-making and guarding against undue influence (not all influence, which is impossible and undesirable, but undue or unwarranted influence).
Anyway, check out my Civil Beat column and let me know what you think.