The Hill's Revolving-Door Rules Don't Work in Both Directions

Dennis B. Fitzgibbons, chief of staff to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, jumped from DaimlerChrysler to Capitol Hill.
Dennis B. Fitzgibbons, chief of staff to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, jumped from DaimlerChrysler to Capitol Hill. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In November, as a lobbyist and strategist for DaimlerChrysler, Dennis B. Fitzgibbons labored to block congressional proposals to mandate the production of more cars that use alternative fuels and to stop the most aggressive efforts to force auto companies to make their vehicles more energy-efficient.

Today, Fitzgibbons is chief of staff to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the panel charged with deciding whether automakers should be compelled to do either of those things.

Fitzgibbons will be meeting with his old employers soon, and he sees no problem with that. "For anyone in government to say to a company or to individuals that I cannot meet with you is to deny them a constitutional right: the right to petition their government," he said.

That's a surprise. If Fitzgibbons had been in his congressional job and then went to DaimlerChrysler, he couldn't be hitting up his successor so soon. But the rules are different for reverse migrations from K Street to Capitol Hill.

In fact, there are no rules. "There really are no congressional ethics rules that bar a member or a staffer from influencing legislation in a way that would benefit their former client or employer," said Robert K. Kelner, an ethics expert at Covington & Burling, a law firm.

Lots of lobbyists have returned to Congress to work for the new Democratic majority. Former Verizon lobbyist Gregg Rothschild is chief counsel at Energy and Commerce. The chief of staff to the House Rules Committee is Daniel A. Turton, a former lobbyist for Timmons & Co., which represents the American Petroleum Institute and DaimlerChrysler. And two freshman Democratic senators have former lobbyists as chiefs of staff: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), whose CoS is James Heimbach, an ex-lobbyist with Ricchetti Inc. (whose clients include General Motors, Sanofi-Aventis and AT&T); and Claire McCaskill (Mo.), whose top aide, Sean Kennedy, worked for AT&T.

The most jaw-dropping hire from K Street, though, is Matt Gelman. Gelman is senior adviser to House Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and is, in effect, on loan from Microsoft, where he is director of federal government affairs. He's on unpaid leave for a few months from the software giant and will return after he helps build Clyburn's vote-counting operation.

Government critics are appalled that lobbyists-turned-staffers can assist without restriction the industries that recently employed them. "The issue is whether loyalty to their former employers will impact the decisions they make in their new roles," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Fitzgibbons, Turton and Kennedy, who discussed their situations, don't understand the controversy. They say their time as lobbyists will help them in their new jobs; they now know how Washington works. Besides, they work for their new bosses, not their old ones. "I'm no longer an AT&T person," Kennedy said. "I'm a Claire McCaskill person."

Gelman, on the other hand, has been reined in. According to his agreement with the House Ethics Committee, neither he nor Clyburn's offices can meet with Microsoft during his temporary posting. A Clyburn spokeswoman said the sanction makes sense at a moment when Democrats are holding themselves to high ethical standards.

So why not "Gelman-ize" newcomers and limit their contacts with recent clients? No one on the Hill has given that a thought.

Close and Closer on Capitol Hill

If you were worried that your favorite interest group might be sidelined in today's hyper-ethical Congress, relax. Lawmakers are finding ways to stay comfy cozy.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) is offering a "Max out package" that allows political action committees to donate $10,000 to his coffers and be treated to special meetings that could include a Napa Valley wine tour, a "private event with up to five guests" or two visits to, well, Minnesota. (Sadly, last week, the Napa leg was canceled.) Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) is selling eight intimate breakfasts with himself for a mere $1,000 per PAC per meal. The "8@8 breakfast series" will have "8 guests max each" and this year will begin at 8:30 a.m. rather than the traditional 8 a.m. "We're letting people sleep in this year," said Shelly Roy, Walden's professional fundraiser.

And the House Conservatives Fund, a PAC that works with the House's hundred-member Republican Study Committee, is planning a Super Bowl party in Miami. For $5,000, a donor gets to go to a "VIP photography session" and a reception the night before the big game.

Even better: Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) is taking donors skiing in Jackson Hole, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is offering an evening with rocker Bob Seger, and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) is going with contributors to Disney World.

Drug Company Hires of the Week

The drug industry, caught in the crosshairs of Congress's new majority, is hiring Democratic lobbyists at a furious pace. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America just retained former Bill Clinton aide Joel Johnson of the Glover Park Group. And in recent months, Amgen signed Steve Ricchetti, also a former Clinton aide, and George Crawford, former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and Merck hired former Clinton staffer Charles M. Brain, and AstraZeneca retained David Castagnetti, an ex-top aide to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. BIO has also added the law firm Foley Hoag, which has ex-aides to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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