Former Rep. Walt Minnick set up a lobbying shop after leaving Congress a year ago, but only now is he allowed to talk business on the Hill.
For nearly 100 ex-Members of Congress who were wiped out in the 2010 elections or who left office on their own terms, the shackles came off this week. They are now free to lobby on Capitol Hill.
Many of these former lawmakers already went to work on K Street while still under their bans, but until Wednesday they had to carefully navigate client relationships without running afoul of the law. They were permitted social interactions with Hill denizens and could offer behind-the-scenes advice to paying clients. But directly lobbying their one-time colleagues was strictly off-limits, and many ex-Members say they rode out their bans steering clear of the Hill for the sake of appearances.
When Idaho voters left Walt Minnick without a job after the 111th Congress, the Democrat set up his own government affairs shop, the Majority Group, with his former chief of staff, Rob Ellsworth.
“We got a dozen or so clients, but because of the ban, Rob had been the one meeting with Members of Congress and staff,” Minnick said. “Having worked in the Nixon White House, I’m not into felonies.”
While some former Members pledge not to directly lobby even after their bans are up, Minnick said he’s looking forward to the new opportunity. His one-year ban also prevented him from representing foreign governments, an area he plans to mine this year for potential business. “I have some extensive connections with China,” he said, “and I’m looking forward in particular to that.”
Other ex-Members whose bans expired this week include Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), who is now with Alston + Bird; Venable’s Bart Stupak (D-Mich.); John Tanner (D-Tenn.) of Prime Policy Group; Husch Blackwell’s Ike Skelton (D-Mo.); Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-S.D.), now with Olsson Frank Weeda; Manatt Phelps & Phillips’ Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.); and Vigor Industrials’ Brian Baird (D-Wash.).
“Yee haw,” Baird said about the end of his ban. “I can actually speak to people. I lived within the ban dutifully and diligently; now my free speech rights have been restored.”
He added that his Seattle-based government relations job with Vigor allows him more time with his children, whom he sometimes shuttles from school to gymnastics classes. He is responsible for coordinating the ship-repair and construction company’s strategy internally and with its outside lobbyists at K&L Gates. But the former Congressman said he doesn’t plan to lobby for Vigor, despite his glee that the ban is over.
But he does have a pro bono cause that he plans to start pressing on the Hill.
A neuropsychologist by training, Baird wants to compel medical schools and health care programs to include training in awareness of military deployment issues. In Congress, he also sponsored a bill to prevent insider trading among Members. When the issue gained traction in recent months, Baird said he felt frustrated that he was muzzled from discussing the topic with Members and staff.
“I have literally been waiting for this day,” he said, adding that he planned to call former colleagues and friends right away on the military deployment issue. “I really am passionate about this, and I want to get this done.”
Ken Gross, a partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom who specializes in lobbying laws and ethics, explained that during the yearlong ban, former House Members cannot lobby any Members of Congress, officers or staff. They are not barred from lobbying the executive branch.
Gross added that any confidential information a Member learned while in office must remain under wraps and can’t be used to benefit lobbying clients.
Former Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who is now with K&L Gates, said he’s anxious to get back on the Hill.
“I had to be very cautious about any kind of contact,” said Gordon, who chaired the Science, Space and Technology Committee and did not run for re-election in 2010. “I had a pretty good reputation, and I wanted to maintain it.”
Former House Members such as Gordon may consider a year a long time, but former Senators must wait two years before they may return to the halls of the Capitol to lobby.
“You miss seeing the people you worked with every day,” Gordon said.
This week was a much less dramatic milestone for some ex-Members, who say they aren’t eager to return to the Hill and don’t intend to lobby.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” said James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the former chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who lost his seat to Rep. Chip Cravaack (R). The senior adviser at the firm National Strategies said he’s doing speaking engagements around the globe and advising clients on public-private partnerships, particularly in the transportation field.
During his ban, Oberstar said, he was not afraid to chat with his former colleagues on Capitol Hill.
“As long as you’re not lobbying, you can talk to any Member of Congress,” he said. “I counsel colleagues on how to proceed on this and that.”
Oberstar said the ban serves its purpose. “It gives Members a separation and also removes public concern about lobbying and former Members of Congress having undue influence on the process,” he said. “It puts some space in there, and I think it’s a good thing.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.