Nice Work if You Can Get It
Future Members Hang Their Hat at Arent Fox
Former Rep. Chris John (D-La.) is among the newest crop of former Members settling into the lobbying life. But he doesn’t plan to stay settled for long.
Hoping to catch some of the luck of Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), John has taken up residence in the very same office at the firm Arent Fox that Thune and Talent occupied as lobbyists. Both former House Members came to Arent Fox after losing statewide races. After a brief respite at the firm, Thune and Talent bounced back to win Senate seats.
Could it be that their stints as lobbyists actually boosted their candidacies? Is there something in the water at the firm, or something about that office?
Not likely, and John isn’t counting on it. But he is looking to earn a living at a firm that allows him to keep a Member’s schedule, with short weeks in Washington and long weekends back in the district.
John isn’t sure when he would run again, and if so, for what. While he might try again for the Senate seat he narrowly lost in November, he’d have to wait six years to do it. More likely is a run for his old House seat, which was seized by a Republican last fall. For now, he wants to keep his options open.
That makes John something of a rarity among his colleagues in the retiring class of the 108th Congress. Many found jobs at Washington law and lobbying firms. But John appears to be the only one who has already expressed interest in plowing back into public life.
“I am young and I love public service,” John said, naming two characteristics he seems to share with his office predecessors. “I think that’s why I decided to work here. Because I’m only working three days a week, flying back and forth, staying at home and staying connected.”
Arent Fox’s success in churning out successful candidates doesn’t end with Thune and Talent. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) also occupied the charmed office before winning a race that sent him to Capitol Hill. And Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) worked there — though on another floor — before winning his seat.
The firm’s principals call it a lucky streak, not the result of any design.
“I’d love to have the legend out there [that] I’m over here manufacturing Senators, but that’s not the case,” said Harry Katrichis, co-chairman of the firm’s lobbying practice.
Marc Fleischaker, the firm’s chairman, called it the unintended consequence of valuing in their hires young former Members with a surplus of energy.
“We are just trying to get people who are an age when they have a lot of productive years left,” he said. “We didn’t hire any of these people to set them up” for a run for office.
Indeed, like many past lobbyist-candidates, Thune and Talent both found their advocacy work was a liability on the campaign trail, inviting withering attacks from opponents and watchdog groups.
Talent, for example, came under fire during his 2002 Senate bid for work he performed at Arent Fox on behalf of the National Federation of Independent Business and two Midwestern companies.
Missouri Democrats said the $242,000 in fees Talent pulled in at Arent Fox — during a time he was widely expected to run for the Senate — amounted to off-the-books contributions to his Senate bid, untouched by campaign finance limits. And they blasted his take from working two days a week at the firm as a stipend from corporate interests that let him campaign without worrying about his personal finances. Talent denied the accusations.
Thune caught heat, too. Then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D) campaign accused him of shilling for the pharmaceutical industry, though Thune countered he never worked for Arent Fox’s clients in that sector. Thune was also lucky that his lobbying work was largely neutralized as a campaign issue by the fact that his opponent’s wife, Linda Daschle, raked in enviable sums as a lobbyist for the aviation industry.
Nevertheless, in the face of likely charges on the campaign trail, John is sanguine.
Asked if he’s worried about his lobbying work being an albatross, he said simply, “They were both successful.”
The reason the issue doesn’t have more resonance may be due in part to the reality that former Members are becoming increasingly common on K Street, answering a growing demand in the influence industry for those who have an insider’s grasp of Congressional byways and the personalities that drive the process.
Indeed, 205 former Members now lobby for a living, according to Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group. And depending on the cycle, about one-third of retiring Members now land lobbying jobs, up from about 10 percent of those retiring in the late 1970s, said Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s campaign finance lobbyist.
In case John harbors any doubts about his line of work, Arent Fox principals have given him the right to recuse himself from working with clients that might compromise a future run for office.
“One part of me says it’s a business,” John said in a recent interview. “But another part of me that has lived through public life and taken some strong stances on issues, I could see myself being conflicted.”
He continued, “But that is something [the partners] set out very definitively — that if you feel uncomfortable about something, let us know, we’ll put you somewhere else. I’m hoping to be able to avoid a lot of that, and I certainly have assurances that I will.”
The firm’s client roster comes mostly from blue-chip industries, including financial services, health care, energy and transportation. One of Arent Fox’s biggest clients, the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, paid the firm $340,000 last year to represent it on education, tax policy and homeland security funding.
So far, after about three months at the firm, no conflicts have arisen, officials said.
Based on past history, John has shown no aversion to accepting campaign contributions from sectors that might cause others to hold their noses. For example, in his 2004 Senate bid he took $62,000 from the tobacco industry and $54,000 from the beer, wine and liquor industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
As a lobbyist, John is not free from the fundraising hustle: One of his priorities is helping Arent Fox expand its political action committee, which last cycle split about $173,000 between Democratic and Republican candidates.
He is also working in Louisiana, doing double duty helping the Democratic Party there rebuild while scouting for potential clients and finding time to spend with his wife and twin 6-year-old boys. A decision about a future candidacy, he conceded, could be years off.
In the meantime, he is content to continue dividing his time between Washington and home like a Member. Last week, John delayed his typical Thursday afternoon flight back to Louisiana. He had to stay in town that night to catch the Nationals’ season opener.