MY LAST NERVE: Our Well-Fed Lawmakers

October 14, 2016

Inside Insight

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By PHILLIP CEASE

catering

Any day of the week, somebody’s buying them food

“Freshman 15” is a term used to describe the weight gained by freshmen during their first year at college. But it might apply just as well to freshman lawmakers.

Special interests of all types routinely provide legislators with breakfasts, lunches, and dinners almost every day of session. Technically this is public knowledge – these catered meals are posted on the State House website – but there must be very few people who know just how often lawmakers get free grub.

Take for instance May 4, 2016. From 8am to 10 a.m., legislators were treated to breakfast by the Piedmont Municipal Power Agency. From 12 to 2 p.m., lunch was provided by the South Carolina Tire Manufacturing Council. For supper, members could attend the reception hosted by the South Carolina Association of Justice – an association of trial lawyers and not (as its name might lead you to believe) an association of superheroes.

These meals are used by the host to meet with legislators, sometimes staff, to explain why their issues deserve legislators’ utmost attention. In other words, the meals are lobbying opportunities.

Host groups included local governments. The City of Columbia reception on May 18 was held at the taxpayer-funded Spirit Communications Park.

Even state agencies get in on the action. On January 27, the Department of Natural Resources held a reception at the State Fairgrounds. Not to be outdone, on March 2, the University of South Carolina held a reception at the USC Alumni Center.

How important is this never-ending parade of special interest-sponsored food for legislators?  Every day the current options for free food are listed at the top of the House and Senate calendars. Even more surprising: each chamber has an “invitations committee” whose job is to accept invitations to these events.

Occasionally two different groups will hold an event at the same time. That happened on January 19, 2016. Both the Engineers, Architects and Contractors of South Carolina and Lexington County hosted receptions for legislators. The former displayed their spread at the swanky Palmetto Club, the latter at the Columbia Convention Center.

According to the calendar for February 26, 2016, from March 1 to the March 17, no fewer than 21 different groups fed legislators. That might not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that from March 1 to 17 there were only nine legislative days (Tuesday through Thursday).

While the practice of wining and dining lawmakers may not surprise you, the fact that legislators get paid a per diem for meals every day may. Each day a legislator conducts official legislative business, he gets $131 for subsistence, even if he lives less than two miles from the State House. No receipts are required for this money – meaning the legislator can eat breakfast for free, thanks to the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and still take the full subsistence amount.

The quickest way to a lawmaker’s heart, apparently, is . . . oh, never mind.

Phillip Cease is director of research at the South Carolina Policy Council

  • upstate

    While it won’t completely resolve this issue, I have long advocated for an increase in legislator pay, and term limits to help resolve some of this pay to play. At first, the pay increase sounds crazy to most people. However when you tie it to term limits, it could be a very effective way to get more “citizen legislators” willing to run for public office. I think $75,000 would be a good fair starting #, combined with a term limit of 8 years in the house, 12 years in the senate, and a combined 16 year cap. The average South Carolinian cannot afford to run for office, unless they fall into a few categories, primarily consisting of self employed people, and lawyers. No private sector employer will allow their employees to take time off of work to serve, making it impossible for most professionals with families to support to do so. Having a sustainable income that is attractive to professional people in the state would entice many more people to consider making the jump. These people would be much less suceptable to being bought than our current bunch.

    • Martin Jones

      US senators get paid quite well, and yet often succumb to lobbying bribes.

      • upstate

        Difference being, running for a state level house/senate position can be done while still working. Running for national office is a full time gig in and of itself. Primary focus for me is that regular citizens pretty much can’t run for office in SC and afford to live. This wouldn’t fix everything, but would at least open the door for normal SC citizens to take the leap and get into public service.

  • Laird

    Amusing, but neither unexpected nor offensive. A surprising amount of business takes place over meals, and legislative business is no different. I don’t really expect that any legislator’s vote is going to be swayed by a plate of food (or even a few drinks). What these events do is provide access and an comfortable environment in which to discuss issues of importance to the sponsor. Which, after all, is a Constitutional right (the 1st Amendment right “to
    petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, which also appears in Article I, Section 2 of the state constitution).
    The only thing about this which bothers me is state agencies and entities (DNR, USC) spending tax dollars on this. Personally, I don’t think such entities should be permitted to lobby the legislature at all, but I suppose that’s an unrealistic hope.

    • swampland

      “Congress shall make no law infringing on the right of the people to sway their duly elected representatives with catered meals, free-flowing liquor, nubile women, and a little walking-around money.”

  • Nikki

    Interesting that state employees traveling on official business only get a mere $32/day for food (and that’s for out-of-state travel only, it’s even less for in-state travel).

  • Lyn Wilson

    In contrast to Laird’s post, I find it very offensive. The practice should neither be condoned (expected) nor tolerated. Receipt of anything of value in exchange for regulatory consideration is a bribe. It is a perversion of the “right to petition for redress of grievances” to imply that the feeding of the swine is simply a means to facilitate a comfortable atmosphere for in-depth policy discussions. And our Government lobbying itself? Absurd. Those who engage in these practices should face ethics charges. And it doesn’t matter if you are pitching or catching…you’re still playing ball.

  • Diane

    It’s not just the free food, what really matters is the facetime and the relationships these special interest groups are able to form with the legislators through these meals. There is no lobbying group for the citizens’ interest serving them breakfast and building those relationships, and we wonder why legislators are so influenced by lobbying groups & special interests over the will of the ordinary citizen.

  • William Morgan

    Our lawmakers will eat more nutritionally (and spiritually) once We The People prescribe their diet within the FED cages they have earned.