Ex-GOP Senators Get Special Access

Posted April 2, 2003 at 6:12pm

From lifetime floor access to the prompt return of a telephone call, Members-turned-lobbyists enjoy a cache of privileges not available to other people on K Street. For ex-GOP Senators, the red carpet rolls a little bit further into the Republican Conference’s weekly closed-door strategy session.

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, GOP Senators extend an open invitation to former colleagues to attend the Republican Policy lunch. The Tuesday meeting, sometimes attended by Vice President Cheney, is where legislative tactics are plotted on issues ranging from tax cuts to foreign policy.

Attending the lunch provides former lawmakers like ex-Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) an exclusive glimpse of the majority’s short- and long-term goals, information that gives them a decided edge over other lobbyists.

“As somebody that doesn’t have that kind of access, you don’t want the former Senators to have that access because they get an advantage over you,” said a veteran GOP lobbyist. “But that is why clients hire them.”

“When you go downtown, the hardest thing is to stay current,” added another Republican lobbyist. “If I was a Senator with access, I would attend those meetings.”

Former Republican Senators who attend the meetings stress that they would never lobby onetime colleagues at the luncheon.

“You kind of just sit back and listen,” said former Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.), a lobbyist for Hecht, Spencer & Associates who attended this past Tuesday’s lunch. “You talk to them later, not here today.”

Grams, who is listed on lobbying registrations as working on accounts ranging from the Boy Scouts of America to J.C. Penney Co., said he uses the lunch to maintain ties with his friends, not conduct business.

“More times than not, I want to talk to them about their families, and how are they doing and how is everything going back home,” he said. “There is a time when you come talk about business, but most of the time I just like to keep those friendships going.”

But some former Senators-turned-lobbyists said they purposely stay away from Republican Conference lunches and accessing the Senate floor.

“I have never gone back to the Tuesday caucus [meeting] since I left and I have never gone onto the Senate floor since I left,” said former Senate Finance Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), president of Sunrise Research Corp. “The very reason is I can see what the allegation can be.

“I can just see the type of story that can be written, so I avoid it,” he added.

House Republicans also allow ex-colleagues to attend their weekly strategy meetings, a GOP aide said. Senate and House Democrats allow only former Members to attend their respective weekly strategy meetings if invited, Senate and House spokesmen said.

But several Democratic and Republican sources noted this is not a Republican phenomena and Democratic Members try just as hard to capitalize equally on their ties to Congress.

In the Senate, Grams is just one of many former GOP Senators who stop by occasionally to lunch with their former colleagues. Another is Gorton, a quasi-Republican leader before being defeated by now-Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in 2000.

Gorton, who served as then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) counsel, now works as a lobbyist for Preston, Gates & Ellis. The firm paid him $274,000 last year, according to a recent financial disclosure report required for Gorton’s service on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

At Preston Gates, Gorton works for clients as diverse as the Air Transport Association, the Magazine Publishers of America and Microsoft.

The former Washington state Senator also made an additional $51,000 for serving as a consultant for Washington2 Advocates, a lobbying firm headed by several of his former top staffers.

Several Republicans said Gorton is the most frequent lunch visitor of all the former Senators, stopping by at least “once a month,” according to one Senator. His most recent visit was last week, numerous Senators said.

“He comes by more often than any of them,” added another Republican Senator. “But I have never heard him say anything about an issue.”

Several of his former colleagues, including Lott, said GOP Senators often turn to Gorton for advice and perspective.

“He was one of the best strategic thinkers we had,” said Lott. “He was smarter than most of us, and I think he misses being here and was obviously hurt with the way the election turned out.”

It is Gorton’s strong ties to the Republican leadership that make the former Washington Senator a very appealing hire, said an official with a company that he lobbies for.

“He is aggressive and committed to doing a good job,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity. Gorton did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Most K Street firms with former Members on staff highlight this fact, suggesting their firm can open doors that might otherwise be closed. One such firm is Advantage Access, a lobbying firm with 12 former Members that touts its ability to gain access to lawmakers.

“Let’s face it: Your important message will never produce results unless you gain access to those key policymakers who need to hear it,” reads an advertisement on the firm’s Web site. “With ADVANTAGE, you know they will hear it.”

Congressional watchdog groups said the exclusive access to GOP Conference meetings is just another tool being used by Members-turned-lobbyists to influence legislation.

“Part of the problem of former Members becoming lobbyists is they have a wide advantage over ordinary lobbyists,” said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. “Typically, they are hired guns that charge extraordinarily high fees and only corporate interests can hire them. This is just another way the special interests can win what they want on the Hill and most of us lose.”

“Whenever you have people with a vested interest sitting in and involved in making policy it is problem,” added Bill Allison, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit government ethics watchdog group. “The average American doesn’t get that kind of influence or input.”

Former Rep. Bill Sarpalius (D-Texas), CEO and president of Advantage Associates, does not deny his bipartisan firm sells its ability to gain access to Members, but he said they never engage in any improper lobbying activity.

“We do not utilize the House floor of the Members dining room or any of that stuff for a lobbying standpoint,” Sarpalius said. “You don’t abuse those privileges. I think Members would be offended if you did.”

Senate Republican Policy Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) also defended the practice of allowing former Senators who are lobbyists attend the GOP strategy meetings.

“They were Members of the United States Senate,” said Kyl, who noted these ex-Senators never lobby their former colleagues on issues.

“No good lobbyist is going to take advantage of opportunities or friendships that are inappropriate,” he said.