Lawmakers Feel the Pull of Future Paychecks

Rep. John Conyers Jr. said Congress would lose talented people with a longer ban on lobbying ex-colleagues.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. said Congress would lose talented people with a longer ban on lobbying ex-colleagues. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It's now official: The balance of power in the nation's capital has shifted downtown from Capitol Hill.

Last week the House Judiciary Committee debated a provision in its pending ethics bill that would have doubled to two years the time ex-lawmakers and their top aides would have to wait before they could return to Congress to lobby their former colleagues. The proposal was designed to discourage former insiders from cashing in on their connections to benefit wealthy, narrow interests.

But the provision was quickly rejected, and no one hid why. Lawmakers did not want to place any roadblocks in what has become their career path of choice: from public servant to private pleader. The lure of lobbying downtown turned out to be stronger than the lawmakers' stated goal of improving Congress's reputation.

Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he feared that lengthening the "cooling-off" period would hurt lawmakers' ability "to attract and retain top-flight staff." In other words, he acknowledged that young people now come to work in Congress not so much to do good as to eventually do well by taking high-paying lobbyist jobs after their stints on the Hill.

The same is true for lawmakers only more so. If a two-year ban is imposed, Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) told my colleague Elizabeth Williamson, "what you are telling me is I cut off my profession."

What a notion! Thirty years ago lawmakers and many of their staffers accepted that their Washington careers were over when they left Congress. Not anymore. Now they look forward to lucrative second acts on K Street working for the same interests they were asked to judge impartially when they were on the government payroll.

Nonetheless, Capuano's concern about his employability as a lobbyist after a two-year break is well founded. I called around last week and discovered that many lobby managers would be reluctant to take on former lawmakers and staffers if their firms had to wait two years before they could unleash their new hires on the Hill.

It is true that a growing number of lobbyists do a great deal more than walk the halls of Congress. (See below for the new job of the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.)

Lobby managers are hard pressed to carry ex-lawmakers and their former aides as "strategic consultants" for 12 months at salaries of $350,000 or more. Doubling that delay would put lots of congressional job seekers out of contention altogether, and also make their contacts stale.

"Former members command such large salaries that having them sit around unable to lobby their colleagues for two years is a really high cost for firms," said Paul A. Miller of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies. "The same applies to staffers, who I believe lose their value twice as fast."

Stephanie E. Silverman of Venn Strategies notes that other firms already bend the rules by conducting what they describe as "non-lobbying meetings" in congressional offices, which have "practically the same effect as any lobbying visit." Similar tactics would proliferate if the waiting period were stretched.

Still, one manager of a large lobbying firm reports that he has received a flood of résumés from congressional staffers recently because of worry that the cooling-off period might be lengthened and their job prospects diminished; the Senate has passed similar legislation.

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