By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, April 17, 2006
Tom DeLay was the elephant in the room at a recent lobbyists' dinner -- and not because of his political party.
The Texas Republican had announced his resignation from Congress the day before the event. He was compelled to that decision in large part because of his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the actions of two former aides, who pleaded guilty to their own misdeeds.
In response, the watchword of the evening was "integrity." Congressman-turned-lobbyist Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) asked the audience to "rededicate" itself "to integrity." Other speakers at the Bryce Harlow Foundation dinner used the term as well.
But what was happening outside the room showed how complicated living up to that word can be. While dinner participants were praising the many good deeds they do, other lobbyists around town were expressing their eagerness to hire DeLay.
As long as he isn't forced to wear an orange jumpsuit (and possibly even then), those lobbyists said, DeLay could easily become a lobbyist himself and make a lot of money.
That isn't exactly what you'd call the gold standard of integrity.
For a few hours before the dinner, I called top lobbyists and asked a simple question, "Could Tom DeLay become a lobbyist now that he's leaving government?"
The answer was a resounding "Yes." DeLay may have found himself on the wrong end of several ethics committee reports, they said. He may have been too radioactive a few years ago to run for speaker of the House. He may even have been too tainted by his ties to convicted felons to be reelected to Congress this year.
But he could still make a bundle on K Street, they concurred. Leaders of law and lobbying firms made it clear that they would happily hire him, especially if federal prosecutors don't indict him as part of the Abramoff affair.
"He would be very valuable to any firm if the legal cloud is lifted from him," said Charles R. Black Jr., chairman of BKSH & Associates, a lobbying firm. "He could come over here and be my boss if he wanted to be."
The reasons have everything to do with his ability to manipulate the system, a specialty much-prized among lobbyists. "Tom DeLay has been the greatest strategist for getting legislation through the House in his generation in addition to having a lot of great relationships with Republicans in the House and Senate," Black said. "His strategic insight on how to get things done up there is unsurpassed. And for clients, that's absolutely needed. There are 30,000 workaday lobbyists but very few who have the strategic insight and an understanding of the tactical process of getting something through Congress like he does."
Wayne L. Berman, chairman of the Federalist Group LLC, another lobbying firm, agreed. "He would be an enormously successful lobbyist. I can't think of anybody who has more friends on Capitol Hill or, more important, more understanding of the process and the rules on Capitol Hill.
"If he wanted to, he could be a very successful lobbyist, political strategist," Berman said. "Washington and politics is replete with second chances."
"Tom would find a lot of places where he would be quite sought after downtown," said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), now a lobbyist with Clark & Weinstock. "There would certainly be a few where he wouldn't because of partisanship or fear that he might be radioactive. But he understands the system better than anybody. He's beloved by the House Republicans. If he wanted to do it, he would find a lot of people interested in hiring him."
It isn't known whether DeLay aspires to be a lobbyist (though I suspect he might, given his long association with many of them through the years). Nor is it certain that he will beat his indictment in Texas on campaign financing charges or avoid prosecution at the federal level.
Still, his future seems assured. A longtime Washingtonian who knows DeLay well said the Texas Republican is likely to get plenty of paid speaking engagements and a book deal. He also would be open to "strategic consulting" arrangements with corporate interests, but not "registered lobbying" because of the press coverage that type of disclosure would attract.
All of which would put DeLay, who denies that he has done anything wrong, on what has become a familiar -- and lucrative -- career path for fallen politicians. Take the cases of two once-prominent congressional tax-writers whom I know and like: former representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and former senator Robert Packwood (R-Ore.).
Rostenkowski was defeated for reelection in 1994 after 36 years in office and went to jail on charges of mail fraud. Packwood resigned the next year after the Senate ethics committee recommended expelling him for sexual misconduct.
Both veteran lawmakers went on to do quite well, however. They have lobbied or consulted for large fees, and Rostenkowski even became a TV pundit in Chicago. Their expertise (read: their ability to make money for companies that have an interest in legislation) far outweighed the liability of their offenses.
Which brings us back to DeLay. His behavior, while perhaps not criminal, was so controversial that he decided he couldn't face the voters in November.
Can the lobbying industry welcome him with open arms and still pursue the Bryce Harlow Foundation's drive for integrity? Even some lobbyists see a problem.
"If we want to hold ourselves up to be a premier profession, we need to have higher standards," said Paul A. Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists. But he conceded: "We do have our struggles [with] how to get a better name."
If the case of Tom DeLay is any indication, lobbyists risk losing their battle for respectability.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address email@example.com. He will be online to discuss lobbying, lawmaking, and Tom DeLay at 1 p.m. today athttp://www.washingtonpost.com.