Since leaving Congress one year ago, Nick J. Rahall II has stayed away from Capitol Hill, except to occasionally sneak into the credit union in the Rayburn House Office Building. “If I saw a member, I ran,” he boomed with a laugh.
That’s because the 19-term West Virginia Democrat faced a yearlong ban on lobbying his ex-colleagues. But now the former appropriator has set up his own consulting company. “I hope to renew a lot of relationships with my former colleagues,” said Rahall, 66.
More than 50 House members who left at the end of the 113th Congress and were not elected to other positions, including Rahall, are now free of their restrictions on lobbying their former colleagues. Former senators, by contrast, must wait another year for their two-year bans to expire as stipulated under a 2007 law.
As of this month, the club of recent ex-lawmakers — which includes former committee chairmen Democrat Henry A. Waxman and Republicans Dave Camp, Spencer Bachus and Howard “Buck” McKeon — can now return to the Capitol complex to press the agendas of paying clients.
It also means the pressure is on.
Fresh from their trip through the revolving door and their “cooling off” periods, these former members will discover whether they can succeed on K Street. Not only do they need to earn their keep, they also must prove to clients they can still wield influence from the outside, where partisan politics yield to bottom-line practicality.
“It’s kind of a mix of excitement and trepidation,” said former Rep. James P. Moran, a Virginia Democrat who joined the law and lobbying firm McDermott Will & Emery after a dozen terms. “There’s no excuse for not making sure that what the firm is compensating me for is reimbursed.”
The Lure of Big Bucks
Although the K Street salaries for some former members can be epic — think of former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin’s nearly $12 million payout in 2010 at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — compensation for ex-lawmakers varies widely. On the lower end, some may command $300,000 a year in base pay, according to headhunters and K Street executives. That’s still a boost from congressional pay of $174,000.
Money is, of course, a major reason why a third of all departing members since 2001 have gone on to register as federal lobbyists, according to LegiStorm data. Then there are many who don’t register but advise clients behind the scenes.
Money isn’t the only factor. Those who’ve left Congress say, in addition to bigger pay and a more manageable work pace, they want to stay relevant on the policy issues and political causes they championed in office.
Camp, a Michigan Republican who held the Ways and Means Committee gavel, is a senior policy adviser at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the world’s largest tax and accounting firm. Camp “has no immediate plans to begin lobbying,” said firm spokeswoman Maggie O’Donovan-Bolton.
Bachus, an Alabama Republican who led the House Financial Services panel, set up shop in his home state to provide clients with “comprehensive legal strategies and solutions,” according to Bachus Brom & Taylor’s website.
Allyson Schwartz, a Pennsylvania Democrat who said she pushed for Medicare improvements on the Hill, is now president of the Better Medicare Alliance. She said she doesn’t plan to register as a lobbyist, but looks forward to being able to talk with sitting members “about the work I’m doing and about the policy and implications for seniors.”
McKeon, a former Armed Services chairman from California, operates the McKeon Group whose clients include Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc. and the Association of Catastrophe Adjusters.
The easy movement from Congress to lobbying firms and advocacy groups doesn’t sit well with some critics.
Jeff Hauser, who runs the Revolving Door Project at the nonprofit Center for Effective Government, said the phenomenon “is very disturbing and has corrosive consequences for our democracy. It encourages people to run for Congress as a stepping stone to being able to trade upon their status as a former member for wealth.”
Lobbying in the ‘Public Interest’
Waxman, a California Democrat, is arguably the biggest kahuna this year to walk through the revolving door. During his 40 years in Congress, he was the force behind some of the nation’s most sweeping health and environmental laws. He chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee during debate over the Affordable Care Act.
He joined his son’s firm, Waxman Strategies, last year as chairman. “He made me chairman, which was a good deal, because I couldn’t be chairman on the Hill any longer because of being in the minority,” joked Waxman, 76.
Waxman registered to lobby the executive branch last year for such clients as the National Association of Community Health Centers and T-Mobile, and he said he expects to advocate on Capitol Hill now that his ban expired Jan. 2.
He’s aware of critics who have expressed surprise that the post-Watergate reformer would join the lobbying world. As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, Waxman investigated Jack Abramoff, the infamous K Street power player whose corruption scandal ushered in the most recent update to lobbying and ethics laws in 2007.
Waxman said he’ll only take on clients and causes he believes in and that are in line with those he championed while in Congress. And he admits that the revolving door raises concerns about former officials doing things that give some interests a leg up.
“Now I suppose somebody could say that about me,” he said. “But I look at those clients as much more public-interest clients.”
The one-year ban, Waxman said, passed quickly, but, “It has inhibited me.”
He couldn’t lobby former Hill colleagues over his health care clients’ potential concerns about the 21st Century Cures bill, which would increase federal funding for medical research. Instead, he made his point to administration officials, who, along with his clients and other stakeholders, were free to discuss the bill with lawmakers.
Unlike Waxman, Moran, 70, isn’t yet a registered lobbyist but is likely to become one — even if it means he’ll have to sacrifice his workouts at the House gym because lobbyists aren’t allowed there. “In my district, lobbying was a major industry,” Moran said during an interview in his new digs, which overlook Union Station and the Senate office buildings.
Waxman, too, said he’s eager to head up to Capitol Hill — if only to escape the high-calorie fare common in his new line of work.
“I miss the Rayburn House cafeteria; they have a wonderful salad bar,” Waxman said from his office in Washington. “I’m tired of all these fancy restaurants downtown.”