'I Help You, You Help Me': The Culture Of The Legislature Needs A New Norm - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Robert Harris

Robert Harris is executive director and general counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. He is a former director of public policy at Sunrun, and a former director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Lobbying reform and gift restrictions passed this session are a much needed beginning.

This past year, two individuals gave boxes of chocolate to each legislator. This gift is likely what many would consider a “gift of aloha.”

The cost of each box of chocolates was probably low (say around $10), although the cumulative cost may have been high (76 legislators x $10 = $760). I am confident that no legislator changed his or her mind on a legislative issue based on receiving this single gift. 

So why should the public care about such gifts? Compounded by the routine giving of dozens of similar gifts, a public perception forms that other state agencies, nonprofits, and businesses must also give something in order to meet with legislators, have their bills heard, or establish a relationship with a legislator.

Rumors run rampant at the Capitol. It wasn’t long ago that I was told the only way to influence an incoming governor was to contribute to his inauguration event. Incoming lobbyists are frequently told they “must” drop off food at a legislator’s office in order to get a meeting with that legislator. Even if not accurate, such rumors reflect a public opinion that policymaking is dependent on gifts and contributing to the right person.

I sincerely doubt that many candidates run for office with the intent of personally benefiting from graft. Instead, newly elected public officials enter a system based on reciprocity, that is, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

For example, a lobbyist buys a legislator coffee while meeting to discuss a bill. That lobbyist comes across as a “nice guy.” Later, when the lobbyist asks for a meeting with a client, the legislator says, “sure, you’re a nice guy, of course I’ll meet with your client.”

  • A Special Commentary Project

Similarly, there is a perception that a junior legislator must support a committee chair’s recommendations, otherwise none of their bills will be considered.

Nothing corrupt with these examples, but a pattern has developed: I help you, you help me. Instead of reviewing bills purely on merit, legislators start to consider who introduced it, who’s advocating for it, and what’s the possible penalty/reward if I vote for it? This reciprocity culture tarnishes the image of our government, erodes public trust, and compromises the integrity of our decision-making process. It also establishes a culture that can lead to more blatant and illegal examples of public corruption.

Looking at the criminal cases against former Rep. Ty Cullen and former Sen. Kalani English, there does not appear to be an express quid pro quo, that is, a “vote this way and I’ll pay you money.” Instead, there was only a continuation of the culture of giving and expecting favors. In this case, gifts of free lodging, free entertainment, and free food – or even direct payments of money – were reciprocated by the willingness to use legislative heft to back policies favorable to the giver.

While such blatantly corrupt acts are plainly illegal and unethical, one can logically see how the existing legislative gifting culture might lead some individuals down this path. To be clear, I’m not excusing the criminal behavior of Cullen and English, but rather noting that the culture at the Capitol may create a slippery slope towards corruption.

Culture makes a difference. Expectations arise and norms are established. I used to do a lot of paid advocacy work at the Public Utilities Commission. It got to the point where I was reasonably friendly with many of the commissioners. When we’d meet for coffee, I’d offer to pay. I was met with a firm “no, sorry, I can’t accept that.” This established a tone. Those leaders were happy to meet and discuss ideas, but they drew a firm line in the sand against accepting gifts – even small ones – from advocates practicing before them.

Ethics reform including new rules for lobbyists that were approved by the Legislature this session are necessary to change the culture at the Legislature. (Civil Beat file photo)

Hawaii has a standing law that prohibits gifts to state employees or legislators that can “reasonably be inferred” to influence or reward a legislator. Over the years, the Hawaii State Ethics Commission has drawn a stricter interpretation of what “reasonably infer” means. This is a healthy progression, intended to shift the culture at the Capitol, as well as remove the appearance of impropriety associated with frequent gift-giving.

In this context of attempting to change our legislative culture, it’s important to note the significant steps taken by the Legislature this past session to combat the perception of a system operating on gift-giving. The Legislature introduced and passed bills requiring lobbyists to be more transparent and ethically astute. Consider:

  • House Bill 142 extends the same gift-giving restrictions on lobbyists that are in place for legislators. This ensures that lobbyists – who are understandably looking for every tool in their toolbox to help get a bill passed or killed – will know they cannot furnish unpermitted gifts to the Legislature or they’ll risk personal liability.
  • Senate Bill 1493 prohibits lobbyists from giving or promising to give a campaign contribution during the legislative session. This reduces the relatively direct connection between taking a legislative action and receiving a campaign contribution.  
  • House Bill 137 requires lobbyists to name the bills or matters they’re lobbying on with specificity, thus greatly increasing sunshine and transparency in lobbying.
  • House Bill 138 mandates lobbyists to take a mandatory lobbying ethics training course, giving the Ethics Commission an opportunity to train lobbyists on new lobbying regulations and best practices.

These new laws regulating lobbying are meaningful steps toward changing the culture at the Capitol. While plainly more needs to be done, Hawaii is undergoing the process of establishing new norms and expectations around lobbying and gifts.

This helps ensure the voices of ordinary citizens are not drowned out by the powerful and favored few, and moves us toward a political process conducted with honesty, accountability, and a commitment to the public good.  

Read this next:

The Legislature Is Addicted To Dysfunction. It’s Time For An Intervention

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Robert Harris

Robert Harris is executive director and general counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. He is a former director of public policy at Sunrun, and a former director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Latest Comments (0)

Four bills that people will find a loophole with. Sad that the concentrated effort is placed on the lobbyist when that's there job; lobby for a bill. Good for them. I have no issue with that. The issue lies with the legislator. They are the ones who need to do the right thing. Say no to the gift or whatever, but I will talk to you about it. Quite simple really. I

Palikusurfer · 3 months ago

Thanks Robert for this perspective. The norms need to change and your coffee example is helpful of how they might an inch or two. I had hoped for more and bigger steps this session.

BusRider33 · 3 months ago

I agree that the culture of reciprocity needs to change. None of the bills passed this year will do so. It’s still legal for a super PAC to donate millions. Giving limits for individuals were not reduced dramatically (or at all). Term limits and publicly funded elections were killed. Give me a break.

xoxoxoxo · 3 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.