On the cusp of a potentially historic wave of congressional retirements, few public records offer clues about which lawmakers have entered negotiations for lobbying and other private-sector gigs.
“There’s not usually much interest in those,” a staffer in the House Legislative Resource Center said with a shrug.
And here’s why: If the House disclosures were accurate, then the last lawmaker to enter job talks with K Street, a speaker’s bureau, universities and the like departed the Capitol in 2014.
Despite a protocol for transparency in place since 2007, only nine House members and eight senators have filed these notices of employment negotiations. That’s minuscule compared with the legions of lawmakers who have decamped from Capitol Hill to K Street over that decade.
In the last Congress, for example, 21 lawmakers went on to new jobs outside of government, according to a tabulation from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Only one — Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who joined Johns Hopkins University — filed a public disclosure.
“We’ve seen people dropping out of Congress who have been negotiating employment, and there are no public records of it,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, an advocate for the disclosures. “This is an important thing. There can be a conflict of interest that has significant ramifications for legislation.”
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Constituents and reporters alike are left in the dark.
Senate rules prohibit the chamber’s members from negotiating lobbying gigs until after their successors have been elected. House members may negotiate their next positions but must file private disclosures with the Ethics Committee.
In its report about the 114th Congress (2015-16), the House Ethics Committee disclosed that it received 161 notifications of negotiations — but most came from congressional staffers, whose forms are never made public.
The two Ethics committees have jurisdiction only over sitting members, so outgoing lawmakers may have little to fear.
And the system is mostly voluntary. It’s up to House members to determine when a conflict of interest arises and file a notification with the House clerk. Only then are their negotiations made public.
Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi announced months before his resignation that he would take the reins of the Ohio Business Roundtable in mid-January. He continued to work on the details of the GOP tax overhaul and other congressional business. Yet there are no records on file of his post-congressional job talks.
“Even members of Congress should have some degree of personal privacy,” said K Street talent scout Ivan Adler. “That being said, I encourage everybody that I work with to not only follow the spirit of the law but the letter of the law when dealing with the ethical responsibilities.”
A number of high-profile lawmakers will leave before the 115th Congress ends in early January. Rep. Charlie Dent, the moderate, pro-business Pennsylvania Republican, is departing this month. He has not publicly disclosed any steps toward a private-sector job. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin says he’s also packing up after this term ends and will figure out his next move in 2019.
The lobbying world has several big-paying gigs that some departing or retiring lawmakers may well be eyeing, including the roughly $5 million-a-year post atop the American Chemistry Council that ex-Rep. Cal Dooley is leaving.
Tim LaPira, a political science professor at James Madison University and co-author of the book “Revolving Door Lobbying,” says the congressional disclosures of job negotiations are, in theory, full of good intentions.
“The idea is that if I’m going to go work in the private sector in the near future, I think all other members of Congress and constituents sort of deserve to know you’re not making decisions while still in power that benefit that future employer,” LaPira said.
The trigger for disclosure is a high one, and usually it takes getting into the specifics of compensation. But LaPira said the absence of transparency in most cases can leave constituents, and the public, puzzling about the timing and circumstances of job talks.
“I would feel better, and I think constituents would feel better, if members of Congress were to err on the side of caution and be more likely to disclose and recuse earlier than later,” he said.