Time for Congress to Slow the Revolving Door

Posted February 9, 2007 at 4:18pm

Some call it “Potomac fever”; others, the “revolving door.” Scores of retiring public officials move directly from public office into lucrative lobbying jobs, cashing in on public service. Even those voted out of office by their hometown constituents for not best representing them often stay on Capitol Hill as full-time lobbyists.

It is too early to know the numbers of officials-turned-lobbyists among the latest wave of retirees, but early indications are that lucrative job offers are flowing. Just a month out of office, ex-Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), former vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee, accepted a new position as “strategic officer” with a defense contractor.

Other public officials from last year’s crop joining K Street include: ex-Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), former chairwoman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on health, who will work for a health care consulting outfit; ex-Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), former chairman of the Resources Committee, signing up with Pac/West Communications, a public relations firm with a full slate of timber and energy clients; and former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who joins his aides at a business consulting and lobbying firm. All of these firms have business pending before Congress.

These former Members are in familiar company. A study by Public Citizen found that from 1998 through 2004, 43 percent of all retiring Members of Congress (those retiring for reasons other than death or conviction) spun through the revolving door to become lobbyists. Anecdotal evidence indicates very high salaries, sometimes reaching millions. Another study found that 17 percent of senior Congressional staffers cash in on K Street with salary ranges in the six digits.

Public service has become a steppingstone to private riches. In an era in which CNN reports that half of all Americans believe most Members of Congress are corrupt — a figure that has risen 12 points since the start of 2006 — and more than a third think their own Representative is crooked, revolving door abuses dangerously fuel public cynicism about who is being represented in the halls of Congress.

It was not supposed to be this way. In the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, Congress recognized the potential for corruption and banned lobbying by former Members and staff for one year after leaving office. “We should not leave the U.S. Senate one day, and turn around and start lobbying the House the next day and using what influence we have left to enrich ourselves,” asserted then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

The revolving door threatens the integrity of government in two ways:

Public officials could be influenced in official actions by the implicit or explicit promise of a lucrative job later in the private sector from an entity seeking to shape public policy.

Public officials-turned-lobbyists will have access to lawmakers that is not available to others, access that can be sold to the highest bidder.

The 1989 revolving door rules, ironically, were undermined by reforms made six years later. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 carved the definition of “lobbying” into two distinct components: “lobbying contacts,” written or oral communications with public officials; and “lobbying activity,” research and preparation specifically intended to facilitate such contacts. The one-year revolving door ban has since been interpreted to apply only to lobbying contacts, which leaves lobbying activities unregulated.

Thus, former Members and staff can be hired by lobbying firms right out of the box to plan, supervise and oversee lobbying campaigns. For a year, about the only thing they cannot do is pick up the phone and call former colleagues. Instead, another lobbyist on the team makes the call. This hardly qualifies even as an inconvenience, let alone a ban on lobbying.

The Senate lobbying reform bill (S. 1), now referred to the House, closes this loophole. It restricts lobbying activity — narrowly defined under the disclosure act as work intended to facilitate a lobbying contact — within a two-year cooling-off period for Members and senior executive branch officials. Former senior Congressional staff members are prohibited from making lobbying “contacts” with Congress as a whole for one year (rather than with just their former offices or committees).

The Senate bill solves an ever-growing problem. It would do what the 1989 law intended: prevent senior public officials from becoming lobbyists, period, with the further improvement that the prohibition applies for a full Congressional session. The temporary ban on lobbying lets the privileged bonds of insider networks fade somewhat before a former Member could accept a lucrative job lobbying Congress.

The House should now take the same bold steps to halt revolving door abuse.

While such steps require political courage, they would help restore public confidence in government. The public is worried about the integrity of public officials and the prospect of golden parachutes substituting self-interest for public interest. As any public official knows, good government essentially is a matter of trust.

Craig Holman is a lobbyist for Public Citizen.