HARRISBURG — It happened without any warning: The “lobbyist room” at the back of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives chamber was closed and is now off limits to lobbyists.
For decades, lobbyists could sit there in a handful of comfortable chairs, watch floor proceedings on TV, print out copies of legislation and send messages to lawmakers in the chamber through a House page who was effectively assigned full-time to this task during floor sessions.
The room was, perhaps, a vestige of a clubbier time decades ago when lobbyists were said to have mingled on the floor with lawmakers during voting sessions, and representatives from the oil and railroad industries were known as the 51st and 52nd senators.
But no more: The House’s chief administrative official said he decided last year it is not appropriate and shut it down before even telling its regulars.
The move comes after Gov. Tom Wolf hammered the Legislature while on the campaign trail last year to adopt the kind of gift ban he imposed on the executive branch.
Still, it seems to signal no broader effort to hold lobbyists at arm’s length, and the perk wasn’t dramatically different than lobbyists’ accommodations in some other state capitols.
To some extent, the room is an anachronism.
Lawmakers didn’t always enjoy getting a lobbyist’s summons through a House page. The extra open door leading into House chambers created a security headache. There are other places to get copies of bills. Floor proceedings can be watched from a fourth-floor gallery or even on a cellphone. And lobbyists can simply text or email lawmakers now, said House Clerk David Reddecliff.
“I’ve always felt uncomfortable having a special ornate room at the back of the House chamber ... designated a ‘lobbyist room,’” Reddecliff said. “And to me the optics — in 2018 at the time, now it’s 2019 when we pulled the trigger, and said, ‘hey, no more’ — it looks like they have just one extra special thing that they can use.”
Some lobbyists shrugged.
Others complained bitterly, saying it had been a crucial means of access to lawmakers, particularly when trying to help hold support together, or peel off support, during debates on closely fought legislation.
Lobbyists keeping tabs on floor action could hand a business card to a House page who would deliver it to a particular lawmaker on the floor with a request to step outside and talk. The room and its perks were open to the public, too, they contend.
Reddecliff and the lobbyists’ trade group, the Pennsylvania Association of Government Relations, said they are working on new accommodations, like an audio and video feed of floor action outside the chamber.
In some state capitols, lobbyists are relegated to hanging around in corridors for a chance to buttonhole lawmakers. California and Connecticut have TVs in hallways showing live floor proceedings.
But lobbyists in Mississippi have taken over a former committee room, with a coffee machine and occasional food spreads. “Room 210” is now an inside-the-Capitol synonym for the lobbyist corps there.
In some states’ chambers, such as Ohio’s Senate and Louisiana’s House and Senate, lobbyists can get close enough to lawmakers on the floor to speak to them or send messages to them through pages, privileges also extended to members of the public.
In Oklahoma, lobbyists could use Senate parking spaces — until the Senate president pro tempore banned it earlier this year.
Until as late as the 1970s, lobbyists in Pennsylvania’s House could hang out at the rear of House floor, behind a brass railing.
They were then bumped to a larger room in the rear of the House and, in the 1990s, to the smaller room that is now locked. The Senate, meanwhile, offers no such accommodation.
But lobbyists are far from shunned in Pennsylvania’s Capitol.
Lawmakers’ regular fundraisers held a stone’s throw from the Capitol are largely attended by lobbyists. A couple of lobbying firms also provide campaign management services.
And lawmakers allow themselves to accept gifts of any value from lobbyists, whether dinners, trips or tickets to golf courses, sporting events or concerts.
There’s some speculation in the Capitol’s corridors about the timing of the move. Revenge? Leadership worried about keeping votes together on controversial legislation?
Not according to Reddecliff. Rather, he said he gave it a hard look after discovering that a page was dedicated full-time to ferrying lobbyists’ business cards during floor sessions.
“I don’t think that in 2019 the taxpayers should be providing a copier, a computer, a TV, a room and a person in the form of a page to do your bidding,” he said.