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Ex-Lawmakers' Perks Have Other Lobbyists a Bit Peeved

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, July 25, 2005

There are two kinds of lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

The first are the mere-mortal lobbyists. These are ex-congressional staffers or other hangers-on who make their livings through a combination of guile, expertise and heavy campaign fundraising.

Then there are the former members of Congress -- a higher class of lobbyists. Their privileges and coziness with current lawmakers make them desired by clients and resented by their mere-mortal colleagues.

The spat between the two gets nastier all the time.

Mere-mortal lobbyist Wright H. Andrews Jr., a former aide to a Georgia senator, fondly remembers the old days when lawmakers didn't want to become lobbyists. "Most former members of Congress weren't very good lobbyists," he said. "They were lazy. They didn't work hard. They still thought they were kings."

But now, corporations and trade groups can't sign up enough of them. And worse, Andrews said, they have an unfair advantage: They can go almost anywhere they want on Capitol Hill as if they were still members.

"Why should they have any more of a privilege than I have to go into the House gym or onto the House or Senate floor or to use the congressional parking garage?" he complained. "As a matter of principle, it's wrong."

Oh, nonsense, the former members say. Those benefits are inconsequential and, anyway, ex-lawmakers rarely use them during lobbying. What the mere-mortal lobbyists are really angry about is that clients are hiring former lawmakers more frequently these days, leaving less business for anyone else.

"The lobbying advantage is greater in the minds of the competition than it is in the minds of the former members," said former Republican representative Jack W. Buechner of Missouri, president of the U. S. Association of Former Members of Congress. Any effort to curtail the perks, he said, is "being driven by current lobbyists who aren't former members and who think there's a problem."

At least one senator agrees with the mere-mortals that former lawmakers are getting away with things that they shouldn't. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) has proposed a set of lobbying changes that includes rescinding the Capitol-roving privileges that legislators-turned-lobbyists enjoy.

Feingold's proposal doesn't stand much chance of passing at present. Absent some new lobbying scandal Congress will probably be content to allow things to stay as they are.

The reason is pure self-interest. With each new election, more and more lawmakers retire early to join the lobbying ranks. So why would they throw away a commercial advantage?

They likely won't. According to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, a nonpartisan research service, 272 former members of Congress registered to lobby from 1995 to January 2004. And that number keeps rising.

Once-elected officials represent a special category of congressional visitor. They can breeze through the Capitol's beefed-up security barriers. They can slip down hallways and tunnels that are closed off to the less fortunate. They can use the House gym, which features a basketball court, a pool, a weight-lifting room, a steam room and, most importantly, dozens of readily accessible lawmakers. They can also walk directly into the private cloakrooms that encircle the Senate and House chambers, and sit on the floor of the chambers themselves.

Narrowly focused lobbying is prohibited inside the chambers. But the chance to schmooze, to see and be seen, or to casually say, "Let's talk a little later," are opportunities that lobbyists of any sort would kill for.

These wide-open rules were devised during a more innocent era. Back then, lobbying wasn't considered a legitimate career alternative, so putting out the welcome mat was more a courtesy to old friends than an invitation to make money.

With the growing acceptance of lobbying, however, lawmakers now routinely aspire to become high-paid lobbyists, and their non-lawmaker competitors are feeling outgunned. Critics argue that the advantages are so great that for Congress to retain them is tantamount to self-dealing.

"There's the appearance of favoritism," said Thomas M. Susman, a lawyer at Ropes & Gray LLP and ethics committee chairman of the American League of Lobbyists. "It's special access that looks unseemly."

Lobbyists who had once been lawmakers shake their heads at all the fuss. They point out that a former legislator who uses the extra access too often is sure to lose it -- if not formally then by dint of being shunned.

"If any former member approached another member on the floor to lobby, the current members would be highly offended," said former Democratic representative Jim Slattery of Kansas, now at Wiley Rein & Fielding LLP. "It would be a stupid thing to do."

Then again, almost no one ever goes that far. "I was there for 32 years and I didn't see former members abusing any rights; they were generally very careful about that," said former Democratic senator John Breaux of Louisiana, who now works at the lobbying-law firm Patton Boggs LLP. "You see former members running around the cloakroom very rarely, and when they do it's mostly to say hello to friends."

In other words, Feingold is trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist, Breaux and other former lawmakers say. The real culprit, they say, is jealously.

"Those kind of perks, like going to the gym or to the floor, don't make a difference. What makes a difference are the long-standing relationships that members have with their former colleagues," Breaux said. "And those are things that you can't legislate away."

It's What We Do . . .

There are few more repugnant regimes in the world than the one governing Uzbekistan. The U.S. State Department has called it an "authoritarian state with limited civil rights." Its police and security forces, the department added, have "committed numerous serious human rights abuses," including torture.

On May 13, a rare and massive anti-government rally took place in Bobur Square in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. In response, security forces machine-gunned several hundred unarmed people and then tried to silence the witnesses. "The Uzbek authorities are trying to whitewash this massacre," charged Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

But Uzbekistan's new lobbyist in Washington, Cassidy & Associates, apparently doesn't mind. I say apparently, because the lobbying firm won't say anything one way or the other. "We do not have any comment," said Cassidy's spokeswoman, Aimee N. Steel.

That's probably the prudent course.

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him atkstreetconfidential@washpost.com.

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