By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Election to Congress used to be an end in itself. Now, for nearly half of federal lawmakers, it is a steppingstone to a second career: lobbying.
A new study has found that 43 percent of the 198 House and Senate members who left government to join private life since 1998 have registered to lobby. Of the 36 senators who left during that period, half have joined the lobbying ranks.
Republican lawmakers have become lobbyists at a faster rate than Democrats, a fact that reflects GOP control of the White House and Congress in recent years. Nearly 52 percent of Republican lawmakers who moved to the private sector since 1998 have registered as lobbyists, the study said. Only a third of departing Democrats took the same path.
The study, which is scheduled to be released today by the Congress Watch division of Public Citizen, a liberal lobbying group, is the first comprehensive examination of lawmakers who have chosen K Street over Main Street for their post-congressional employment.
Its results detail the sea change that has occurred in lawmakers' attitudes toward lobbying in recent years.
"Access equals power in Washington, and few people have greater access than a former member of Congress," said Frank Clemente, director of Congress Watch. "We believe the public has the right to know how frequently their elected representatives change their allegiances and become lobbyists."
Congressional historians say that lawmakers rarely became lobbyists as recently as two decades ago. They considered the profession to be tainted and unworthy of once-elected officials such as themselves. And lobbying firms and trade groups were leery of hiring former members of Congress because they were reputed to be lazy as lobbyists, unwilling to ask former colleagues for favors.
But that began to change noticeably in the late 1980s. The reasons include sky-high lobbying salaries, a growing demand for lobbying services by industry, heavy turnover in Congress, and a change of control in the House of Representatives a decade ago, which opened the way for a flood of new GOP lobbyists.
"Now it's common for members of Congress to become lobbyists and, unlike years ago, there's no shame in making that transition," said James A. Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
So many former lawmakers are lobbying these days that Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation of three years ago, has proposed paring back the many privileges in the Capitol that former lawmakers enjoy. His plan would deprive lawmakers-turned-lobbyists of their ability to roam freely on the House and Senate floors, in the House gym and in areas of the Capitol that are otherwise "members only."
The largest-ever exodus of lawmakers into the lobbying field occurred after the volatile election of 2000. George W. Bush, a Republican, replaced Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House and the GOP won control of the Senate. Half of the 50 members of Congress who went into the private sector after that election registered to lobby, the study said.
Probably because of the new partisan slant of government that year, more than 62 percent of the Republicans who left in 2000 became lobbyists -- 23 of 37 -- while 15 percent of departing Democrats -- 2 of 13 -- did the same.
By contrast, after the more-Democratic-leaning 1998 election, 52 percent of the Democrats who went into private life -- 12 of 23 -- went into lobbying, which was slightly more than the 46 percent of departing Republicans -- 11 of 24 -- who picked lobbying as a vocation. After that election, the White House and the Senate remained in Democratic hands, with Republicans controlling the House.
The Senate has been a proportionately bigger breeding ground for lobbyists than has the House. Of former senators eligible to lobby since 1998, 50 percent have registered to do so. From the House, 42 percent of the lawmakers who left over that period -- 68 of 162 -- have decided to lobby, the study said.
Two thirds of the Republican senators who went into private life since 1998 -- 12 of 18 -- have become lobbyists, compared with one-third of Democratic senators -- 6 of 18 -- who have done the same.
In the House, nearly half of the Republicans eligible to become lobbyists have registered to do so over that period -- 46 of 94. House Democrats became lobbyists at a lower rate -- 32 percent, or 22 of 68 retirees.
Republicans became lobbyists in greater numbers in part because of a concerted effort by GOP lawmakers and lobbyists to recruit Republicans for lobbying firms and trade organizations, the Congress Watch report asserts. However, it does not supply proof of the accusation against what is called the K Street Project.
The study drew its conclusions by tallying lobbying registrations filed with the Senate and the Justice Department. It classified as eligible to lobby lawmakers who did not leave Congress to take other jobs in government or were not incarcerated.