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Susan Green

State Senator Says Lobbyists Can –

‘Swing a Vote for a Steak Dinner’

(25 April 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 17, 25 April 1949, p. 5.

Recently the newspapers and magazines became quite excited about the announcement of Labor’s League for Political Education of the AFL that it plans to raise a fund to augment the pay of labor-endorsed candidates elected to state legislatures. Comment has ranged from approval in the liberal press to a gentle warning from the Daily Mirror editor as follows: “Hey, wait a minute, fellows; that’s bribery.”

Because of the unbelievably low average pay of state legislators, powerful interests like insurance companies, railroads, public utilities and. other corporations have a lush field on this local level to exert the influence of ready cash. The result of this situation, plus rural conservatism, has been a whole crop of anti-labor laws on the state statute books, so that even if the Taft-Hartley Act should be repealed in Washington, these state laws would still operate against labor.

Since state legislation is made, at least nominally, by state legislators, let us learn something about them. A most illuminating article about this species of politician recently appeared in the magazine section of the New York Herald Tribune, entitled I Am a $5-a-Day Senator and written by Richard L. Neuberger, Oregon state senator. He tells of his own hardship? Living away from his home in the state capital on $5 a day for the duration of the session: keeping house in a motor court; sharing a car and groceries with fellow legislators; worrying about getting back home quickly to get hold of some real money. These are the honest ones whose main infringement of what is called the moral code may be to sell their sets of the state’s legal code to a bookseller or legal library.

For Eggs and Bacon

But this is, not all. The picture of general corruption painted by Mr. Neuberger is shocking, even to the presumably shockproof. Direct quotations from Mr. Neuberger must be given to get the real essence:

It may all sound slightly comic, but there is an aspect to it which rubs away the humor. There are 90 members in our legislature, and for every senator and representative a half dozen lobbyists crowd the capitol cloakrooms and hotel corridors. Armed with liberal expense accounts, they like nothing better than to pick up a legislator’s dinner check, provide him with a bottle of liquor or a baked ham, or furnish him with a car and driver. It’s gotten to the point where if you’re a good lobbyist you can sometimes swing a vote for a steak dinner ...

“I know a man who lobbies at state capitals all along the Pacific Coast. He admits frankly that it is ‘easier and cheaper’ to bring his influence to bear in Oregon than in California, where members are paid $1,200 a year plus expenses. ‘The Oregon legislators are just as honest but less independent,’ confides this lobbyist. ‘Their measly pay makes them susceptible to what I call dime-store lobbying. You can get a key committee member indebted to you for the price of eggs and bacon.’ ...

“In some states reports frequently hint of some senator or representative allowing his hotel bill to be paid by the local utility company. How much, independence can be expected of a lawmaker under such circumstances?”

Indecent Wages

So it is not only of Oregon that Mr. Neuberger writes; no, indeed! The national average pay for state legislators is $900 per year. Not many states, however, pay an annual salary. Those that do are: New York $5,000; New Jersey and Illinois $3,000; Massachusetts $2,750; Michigan $2,400; Ohio $2,600; Pennsylvania and Maryland $1,200. Legislators in these states are aristocrats compared with others. For instance, Connecticut pays $600 for a two-year term; Vermont $750 for a term; New Hampshire $200 for a two-year term; West Virginia $500 a year; Utah $300 a year.

Of course, legislative sessions do not last for a full two-year term nor even for a full year. But it must be remembered that legislators have to leave their own homes to live in the capital for the duration of the session. Only a few states have small maintenance allowances. In states where legislators are permitted a secretary, to get extra money they often employ their wives who, as likely as not, know neither stenography nor typewriting.

This low standard of pay for state legislators results not only in the bribery so well described by Mr. Neuberger. Another effect is that the well-to-do, who can afford the luxury, become state lawmakers. Businessmen sit in the state legislatures and make laws in their own private interest. Another outcome has been the growth of a retainer system, which is legal in many states. At any rate, legislators are not required to make their connections known.

The United States News & World Report, in an article on the subject of state legislators, says that the retainer system is practised by many insurance firms, railroads, public utilities, various other corporations. About one quarter of the legislators in most states are retained lawyers.

Political Cesspool

Another factor in the case is that most state legislators are apportioned to favor the rural districts. Some estimates are that the metropolitan areas are underrepresented by 25 per cent. For example, in New York State legislative apportionment was made in 1894 by a group of upstate politicians whose aim was to keep New York City from getting a majority. Labor is, of course, mostly in the cities.

Into this milieu of bribery and corruption, of domination by corporations, retained lawyers and rural conservatism, organized labor is entering with intent to increase its influence. In the past labor union have here and there also followed the retainer system. Now, however, the AFL is elevating the scattered practice to general policy. This ties in with the purpose of the CIO and AFL to elect candidates they endorse.

In order to get capable and reliable people to accept nomination for the state legislatures, they must be assured a decent livelihood. So there is undoubtedly a logic in the plan of the AFL to raise a fund to subsidize its elected candidates. The gentle warning from the Daily Mirror – “Hey, wait a minute, fellows; that’s bribery” – is laughable in view of conditions that seem as near a political cesspool as can be imagined.

What Is Revealed

From this corner, the corner of the socialist who wants to see labor as strong as possible, the question comes: Why not enter this field with labor’s own political instrument, an independent labor party? Send men and women from the ranks of labor to be lawmakers. Send them through a party which is labor’s own, free from all Democratic and Republican entanglements, free from the parties to which these bribing lobbyists belong, these corrupting corporations, these retained lawyers, these rural conservatives. Let organized labor indeed see to it that its lawmakers are paid a decent wage, but let it also see to it that these are labors own people, guided by and loyal to the platform of an independent labor party. Such a party would also be able to win over the rural people nearest labor in their economic and political interests.

There is something even more fundamental. On the scale of the state rather than the nation as a whole, one can see in greater detail the operation of the capitalist system. The unequal distribution of wealth; the power of those who have it over those who haven’t; the use of any means for private profit – all is revealed in the operation of our state legislatures.

What kind of democracy is this anyway? Isn’t there something to the socialist contention that real democracy is not possible under the profit system?

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