March 28

GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced today that he’ll be leaving Congress to become a radio host, seeking an even greater level of celebrity and influence.

This is highly newsworthy, but not because a powerful figure is departing Capitol Hill. Rather, the big news is that he’s not retiring to become a lobbyist and use his knowledge and connections on to enrich himself and his corporate clients.

That Rogers’ next career choice bucks that trend shows how deeply entrenched the revolving door between Congress and K Street has become. Ten years ago it was a big deal when Rep. Billy Tauzin shepherded George W. Bush’s pharma-friendly Medicare prescription drug benefit through Congress, then promptly quit to take a seven-figure job as the pharmaceutical industry’s chief lobbyist. These days we take this for granted from our nation’s lawmakers.

For Rogers, opting for radio instead might make sense. In the last couple of years, he has been the most frequent guest on the Sunday shows, outpacing even John McCain. So he’s had some practice in talking into microphones. Will that make him a successful radio host? It’s possible, but I think most people underestimate just how difficult it is to be interesting on the radio for hours at a stretch. (To get a sense of what it’s like, read this article by David Foster Wallace, one of the greatest things ever written about media). But maybe he’ll surprise everyone.

Still, let’s consider just how rare it has actually become for retiring members to opt for a career path other than lobbying.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, fully two-thirds of the departed members of the last Congress who found other jobs are now doing lobbying (or, if they’re still in the one-year “cooling off period,” they’re working for lobbying firms but supposedly not conducting actual lobbying).

We should note that there are all different kinds of lobbyists, some of whose work is quite admirable, despite the negative opinion many have of those who make it their profession to petition the government for redress of grievances. Some lobby for tax breaks for corporations, but others lobby for environmental protection or the interests of people with mental illness.

Still, former members of Congress gravitate more towards corporate clients with lots of money to spend. And it isn’t too difficult to see why for so many of them, the spirit of public service eventually turns to the spirit of “time to get paid.”

After all, for a job that people work so incredibly hard to get, serving in Congress, particularly in the House, can often be frustrating. When you get there, you’re at the bottom of a very tall totem pole. You may feel a stirring in your soul as you walk into the Capitol every day, but you probably don’t have much in the way of genuine power, even after you’ve been there for a while. Half your co-workers are people whose worldview you find abhorrent. And the fundraising — the unrelenting need to beg people for money, day after day and year after year — can really grind a person down. The pay is good by ordinary standards, but when you spend so much of your time kissing rich people’s butts, that $174,000 a year starts to seem like a lot less than you’re worth.

So a lot of members end up treating Congress kind of like getting an MBA: you spend a few years there, you learn some things, but mostly it’s about making connections you can cash in on later. Rogers doesn’t deserve too much praise — it isn’t as though he’s leaving Congress to go teach high school civics in an impoverished school district in Appalachia. But at least he’s not cashing in via the more direct path that so many of his colleagues have taken.