'Wynn-Win' for K Street, Loss for the Public?

Rep. Albert Wynn has said he is leaving Congress for the lobbying law firm Dickstein Shapiro -- but not right away.
Rep. Albert Wynn has said he is leaving Congress for the lobbying law firm Dickstein Shapiro -- but not right away. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rep. Albert R. Wynn is the new envy of K Street.

The eight-term Democrat shocked the Washington establishment last week by announcing that he will quit Congress early to become a partner in a major lobbying law firm, Dickstein Shapiro. And in a rare twist, Wynn said he will keep his current job -- representing Maryland's 4th Congressional District -- for two or even three months before taking the new gig. What a deal!

Lobbyists would kill for that kind of access. Many of them spend their whole lives wishing they could do what Wynn will be able to do with impunity: March onto the House floor and shoot the breeze with senior lawmakers; participate in otherwise secret meetings of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, on which Wynn is a high-ranking member; and cut deals with fellow congressmen on issues they care most about.

"Sounds like a good deal for Wynn," said Stephanie E. Silverman, principal in the lobbying firm Venn Strategies. "It's a Wynn-win."

Wynn is not alone among lawmakers to defect before the end of their terms to join the law and lobbying scene. In fact, it's been something of a trend in recent years. Congressman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) left to take over the drug lobby, better known as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Another Louisiana Republican, Richard H. Baker, left the House this year to head the mutual fund lobby. And the Senate's former GOP leader, Trent Lott (Miss.), quit late last year and quickly joined forces with former senator John Breaux (D-La.) and their sons.

But when these others left, they left. They didn't stick around for months to haunt Congress's inner sanctums. That's what makes Wynn's decision unusual -- and makes lobbyists drool.

"He can be a hero to the clients of Dickstein Shapiro," said James A. Thurber, a lobbying expert at American University. "They can call him easily and say, 'You know, we have a client interested in that [congressional] white paper on greenhouse gas emissions. Could we come in and talk to you?' " Wynn, who declined to be interviewed for this column, plans to begin work for Dickstein Shapiro in June. In the meantime, he could recuse himself from casting votes on issues that concern the firm's clients, and there are an awful lot of those. Dickstein has lobbying clients in industries as wide-ranging as tobacco, entertainment, chemicals, energy and software. It also represents a labor union, the Teamsters.

L . Andrew Zausner of Dickstein Shapiro said, "We are highly confident that [Wynn] will conduct himself in the interim with the highest personal and political integrity."

But Jan W. Baran, an ethics expert with the law firm Wiley Rein, believes the House's ethics committee "might advise him to stop voting altogether, which would leave his constituents without a vote in Congress."

Good-government groups have started to huff and puff about potential conflicts of interest. "He's supposed to be representing the interests of his district," said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Instead, he has reason to curry favor with Dickstein and its clients, which will soon be paying him."

Republicans are also raising concerns. "This is another example of the Democratic majority's disturbing unwillingness to live up to the ethical standards they campaigned on," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio). Other spoilsports, including Thurber, have called for Wynn to resign immediately, at least from the commerce committee. "The Wynn thing is a scandal waiting to happen," he said.

But that's not K Street's worry. Heavy-duty lobbyists are more than pleased with the way things stand. They're happy to have a man on the inside.

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