Ellsworth, Hodes Hype Lobby Bans

Posted August 4, 2010 at 6:27pm

Two Congressmen who are trying to ascend to Senate seats released proposals this week to tighten restrictions on former Members looking to cash in on K Street.

Rep. Paul Hodes on Wednesday unveiled a new plan that would ban House Members from registering to lobby for two years after they leave office. According to the New Hampshire Democrat’s bill, departing Senators and many federal officials would be forced to sit on the sidelines for six years after leaving office.

The day before, Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) introduced a new ethics package that would institute a lifetime ban on lobbying by ex-Members and a six-year ban for Congressional staffers. It also would bulk up financial disclosure rules and force sitting Members to put their assets in a blind trust.

“What he wants to do is ensure that the public can be sure that when they send somebody to Washington that the person who is going is going for the right reasons,” said Liz Farrar, an Ellsworth campaign spokeswoman. “It’s not about then turning around and using that experience to secure a lucrative job afterwards.”

But few folks within the Beltway, including the head of a government watchdog group, appear to be buying it.

The skepticism comes because both lawmakers are locked in difficult contests this year, and their proposals are considered to be overt political acts. In the case of Ellsworth, the new legislation would appear to draw a stark contrast between the two-term House Member and his GOP opponent, one-time lobbyist and former Sen. Dan Coats.

“A lifetime ban is more of a rhetorical gesture than a real effort at substantial reform,” Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller said. “It strikes me that a lifetime ban on Members’ lobbying is draconian.”

Hodes is likely to face former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) in November. In a statement Wednesday, Hodes used his proposal to also draw a contrast between himself and his presumptive GOP opponent.

“I challenge Kelly Ayotte and her Republican opponents to stop supporting the GOP establishment and the status quo down in Washington and support my plan,” Hodes said. It’s “time for them to tell New Hampshire whose side they’re on — do you stand with the people of the Granite State, or the DC lobbyists trying to protect business as usual in Washington?”

Not surprisingly, K Street sources said they agree with Miller — a rare occasion in itself — that the proposals are little more than empty election-year promises and the latest attempt to beat up on a perennial enemy.

Even more, downtown insiders claim that Ellsworth’s blanket ban could be unconstitutional; some even added that they believe the current bans — one year for House Members and two years for Senators — might have trouble if they were challenged in court. A Democratic source likened the restrictions to popular noncompete agreements signed by employees, which are enforceable only if they require a reasonable cooling-off period.

“At some point, you are allowed to feed yourself,” the Democratic lobbyist said. “Unless you want a government comprised of old rich farts who don’t have to work, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that they’re going to have a life of some soft after they finish. Some of them like to live in Washington. Some of them like the policy, and not everyone is an independent think tank person.”

The source added that both Hodes and Ellsworth are desperate when it comes to their political futures. “It’s like the muttering of a demented fool who is about to lose his job,” the lobbyist said.

Nels Olson, a Korn/Ferry International recruiter, said more strict bans on post-Congressional lobbying activities may also make candidates think twice about running for federal office.

“At the end of the day, they do it for public service. But after they do it for public service, they need to be able at least to have the opportunity to make a living,” he said. “Restricting their ability to make a living in the lobbying world — I’m really not sure that would fly.”

Dickstein Shapiro lobbyist Al Wynn, a former House Member from Maryland, said the legislation put forth by his former colleagues “doesn’t have any formal logic.” The Democrat said Members-turned-lobbyists were instrumental in helping Democrats pass the health care and financial regulatory overhauls this year.

And short of a good campaign ad, Wynn suggested there is no tangible evidence that he or others corrupt the process. “Every piece of legislation that’s passed, there’s been former-Member lobbyists around,” he said. “You really have to reach to find a problem directly linked to former-Member lobbyists.”