In D.C., government experience matters most; Sunlight offers numerical evidence


New research from the Sunlight Foundation shows which lawmakers’ former staffers generate the most lobbying revenue for firms on K Street. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Washington Post)

There’s fresh evidence that the revolving door has been spinning faster than it used to, and that the people who travel through it are playing a bigger role on K Street than ever before.

The new research from the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes government transparency, covers lots of ground — including juicy nuggets on which lawmakers’ former staffers generate the most lobbying revenue.

Among the findings: The total number of lobbyists with reported government experience has nearly quadrupled, from 482 in 1998 to 1,846 in 2012. Over the same period, the number of lobbyists who didn’t report prior government service held roughly steady.

As authors Lee Drutman and Alexander Furnas explained last week, they’re looking at “contract lobbyists” — those who work in lobbying firms — and not “in-house” lobbyists who represent only one organization. (For their report, see the Sunlight Foundation’s Web site.)

The result is that the share of active lobbyists who have passed through the revolving door increased from just under 18 percent to a whopping 44 percent.

The Sunlight research also shows that all of the massive increase in lobbying revenue over that 14-year period can be attributed to the revolvers. And they point to some riveting research from a trio of European academics who reported in 2010 that lobbyists who used to work in a Senate office suffer a 24 percent drop in the revenue they generate when their old boss leaves office.

While a couple of K Streeters said they had some quibbles with a few of Sunlight’s calculations, they didn’t dispute the growing role of those who have worked on the Hill and elsewhere in government.

They did have differing reactions — ranging roughly from “So what?” to “But why?” The first view reflects a simple frustration at the bad feelings that the very phrase “revolving door” can generate. The latter comes with a different frustration — at the slow pace of progress on Capitol Hill.

But there are signs that the door is beginning to slow.

Ivan Adler, a headhunter who places lobbyists for the McCormick Group, an executive search firm, said the recession, combined with congressional paralysis — which have helped depress lobbying spending since 2010 — are making it harder for Hill staffers to get jobs on K Street. (The cooling off period imposed by a 2007 law on members of Congress and their staff before they can legally lobby their former colleagues hasn’t really affected hiring, he said.)

Or, as one energy lobbyist described it, there’s a “huge slowdown” in hiring.

It’s even hard for some “ordinary” members of Congress to land lobbying jobs, several lobbying pros said. Adler said that over the past few years, he’s spoken with about 15 outgoing lawmakers who wanted to make the move to K Street.

“I can’t place them all,” he said.

People who work for members of the congressional leadership or on “money committees,” such as appropriations and Ways and Means, “can still have their choice of jobs in Washington,” Adler said.

The latest high-profile example was Josh Kardon. As highlighted in a news release this month announcing his new job at Capitol Counsel, a firm that specializes in tax lobbying, Kardon worked on the Hill for 21 years, including 17 as chief of staff to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Wyden is expected to become chairman of the Finance Committee, with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on his way to being the U.S. ambassador to China.

But for an ordinary staffer, finding a lobbying gig is much tougher than it used to be — the toughest environment he’s seen in his 18 years on the job, Adler said. While it’s still possible to get a job at a trade association, don’t count on a big law and lobbying firm.

Not surprisingly, Adler shrugs off the view that there’s something unsavory about passing through the revolving door.

“Their job is politics and legislative affairs,” he said. “That’s what they’re going to do.”

On the podium: Agency officials and their interested audiences

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is scheduled to speak at State of the Net, an annual information technology policy conference, on Tuesday in Washington.

Write us with your tips, feedback or other comments at influence@washpost.com.

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