Fewer lobbyists are passing through the revolving door from K Street to Capitol Hill

May 4, 2014

Congressional staff members who pass through the revolving door and onto K Street understandably draw scrutiny. Where are they going? How will they use their Hill connections? How much money will they make?

But sometimes the revolving door carries lobbyists to the halls of Congress, and the movement in that direction is worth a look, too.

Take Stephen Sayle. As others have noted, he worked for about 15 years as a lobbyist, the last seven at Dow Lohnes Government Strategies, where he had several big energy clients, including Chevron. Late last year, he became staff director for the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s energy subcommittee.

And Brian Moulton, a longtime lobbyist for the Human Rights Campaign who last month went to work as a lawyer for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

Those and other moves raise their own questions: Why would someone do this? What kind of pay cut are they taking?

First, a little perspective. While the number of people moving from the influence industry to Capitol Hill has always been smaller than those going the other way, it hit a 10-year low last year, according to data collected by Legistorm. The 108 former lobbyists who became congressional aides was less than half the 220 who made that move in 2011, the site said.

People who work on K Street and on the Hill have several explanations for the dramatic decline, including the bitter partisan mood in recent years and the related frustration at how little has been getting accomplished. The government shutdown didn’t help, either.

It’s all that and more, said Ivan Adler, a headhunter for the McCormick Group who helps Hill staffers transition to lobbying. “It used to be that you weren’t getting paid a lot of money but you could go on trips and get wined and dined and romanced by lobbyists,” he said. But since a 2007 ethics law that put new restrictions on gifts to lawmakers and their staffs, “You can’t do that any more.”

And what about pay? It’s not news that most Hill staffers make less — sometimes a lot less — than lobbyists. But something has changed on this front, too.

Total spending on salaries in the House rose by 42 percent from 2001-2010, according to Legistorm’s tally of House records. But Republicans tightened budgets after they took control of the House in 2010, leaving some jobs unfilled and less money to spend on those that do get filled.

“It makes it even harder to hire someone from the lobbying world,” said Legistorm’s founder, Jock Friedly, who drew his share of wrath for making it easy to look up staffers’ salaries and financial disclosure reports.

But plenty of people still make the move. Sayle declined to comment on his recent switch, and Moulton didn’t reply to a request for comment.

One person who recently went to work on the Hill said he is making $100,000 less than he did on K Street. Although he had worked for a congressional office earlier in his career, he forgot how young the staffs are in members’ personal offices, and how tight the working quarters are.

The ex-lobbyist talked about his family’s tradition of public service and “a unique opportunity” in Congress. And he said his business-side experience was helping on the Hill; his new boss has asked him how other offices he had contact with as a lobbyist had handled some issues.

He and others acknowledge another key reason why some people step off K Street and onto the Hill: to refresh their contacts, with an eye toward improving their business when they go back to the private sector.

Dave Hoppe, who first worked on the Hill in 1976 and went on to work for powerful Republicans including Jack Kemp and Trent Lott, said that renewing his contacts was one of the many reasons he went to work for Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) in 2011, after about eight years at Quinn Gillespie & Associates. (He said he also admired Kyl and liked the chance to work in the Senate Republican whip’s office. It was good, too, that Kyl had already announced his plans to retire, so Hoppe could make an easy exit if he wanted.)

With such a senior job on the Hill, Hoppe was required to file financial disclosure forms that show he made $648,000 in 2010 as a lobbyist, and $592,000 the following year.

And after Lott was ousted from the Senate Republican leadership, Hoppe said, he had two children in college and a third with Down syndrome, and he was keen to put money in a trust for his son to ensure his long-term care. That’s when he made the move to Quinn Gillespie.

Despite the close attention he paid to Congress as a lobbyist, he said that when he got back to the Hill, “it was shocking to realize how little was being done.”

The sharp decline in people moving from K Street to the Hill makes perfect sense to him. “Why would you want to leave a job and take a pay cut and not have a lot of hope of accomplishing things? Most people want to accomplish things.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/politics.

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