Lobbyists becoming public officials isn’t as bad as the other way around

June 20, 2013

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) left the Senate in 1999, then returned in 2011. He spent some of the time in between working as a lobbyist. At a Tuesday confirmation hearing for Tom Wheeler, President Obama's choice to head the Federal Communications Commission, Coats described how he approaches his relationship with his former clients.


Tom Wheeler at his Senate nomination hearing. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

"When I came back here, I think those clients thought, he already knows our issues, and we know where he's going to come down," Coats said. "I was able to inform every one of them that I'm starting with a clean sheet."

Coats raised the issue because Wheeler himself has spent much of his four-decade career as a lobbyist. In 1976, he took a job at the National Cable Television Association. During the 1990s, he ran CTIA, a trade group that represents wireless companies.

"If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, my client will be the American public," Wheeler assured Coats.

The ideal candidate for FCC chairman would have decades of practical experience with the tricky technical and legal questions the agency grapples with. He or she would also have few ties to the industries he'd be charged with regulating. But those criteria are in tension with each other because one of the best ways to gain experience with telecom issues is to work for a telecom company.

Wheeler's resume isn't unusual. Wheeler's immediate predecessor, Julius Genachowski, spent a significant part of his career working at media and technology companies, though not as a lobbyist. Robert McDowell, who served on the FCC from 2006 to this year, spent time at the Competitive Telecommunications Association, a trade association of small telecom firms, in the late 1990s. Meredith Baker, who served on the FCC during President Obama's first term, spent time as a telecommunications lobbyist prior to joining the agency.

Despite Wheeler's extensive industry ties, he's gotten high marks from some individuals and groups who regularly cross swords with his former clients. Gigi Sohn, president of the liberal advocacy group Public Knowledge, predicted that Wheeler would be "an independent, proactive Chairman." Even law professor Susan Crawford, one of the most strident foes of large telecom companies, signed a letter endorsing Wheeler's candidacy.

Of course, people who want to influence telecom policy have an incentive to flatter an incoming FCC chairman. But speaking on background, another insider at a left-leaning nonprofit argued that Wheeler is likely to show independence from his former clients. He argued that Wheeler has had a prosperous career and is nearing retirement age, giving him the luxury of not worrying how his decisions might affect his future employment prospects.

The real problems crop up when the revolving door turns the other way, carrying people from the FCC to private industry. The prospect of a future lobbying job is a powerful inducement for public officials to take industry-friendly positions.

Probably the most egregious example of this phenomenon is Meredith Baker. After a career that included stints as a telecommunications industry lobbyist, Baker was named an FCC commissioner in 2009. One of the biggest issues during her tenure was Comcast's proposed merger with NBC-Universal. Baker voted in favor of the merger in January 2011. Then a few months later she quit her term early to take a position as a Comcast lobbyist.

Other FCC commissioners have followed similar career paths. Michael Powell, who served as FCC chairman during George W. Bush's first term, now heads the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Two other Bush-era commissioners, Kathleen Abernathy and Jonathan Adelstein, respectively, now lobby for telecom companies.

We can't know how much effect future career prospects have on these officials' decisions. But it's hard to believe that the prospect of a lucrative post-FCC paycheck doesn't affect these officials' judgment. So it's worth thinking about how to make a move from regulatory agencies to industry less attractive.

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Sarah Kliff · June 20, 2013