By Dan Eggen
Thursday, December 9, 2010; A25
During his campaign to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate, GOP nominee Ron Johnson accused Democratic incumbent Russell Feingold (D) of being "on the side of special interests and lobbyists."
"After promising voters that he would reform the culture of lobbying in Washington, instead Senator Feingold embraced lobbyists and declared himself to be on their side," a Johnson spokeswoman said at the time.
But after defeating Feingold, Johnson himself has turned to K Street for help - hiring homeland security lobbyist Donald H. Kent Jr. as his chief of staff.
Johnson is not alone: Many incoming GOP lawmakers have hired registered lobbyists as senior aides. Several of the candidates won with strong support from the anti-establishment tea party movement.
These cases illustrate the endurance of Washington's traditional power structure, even in the wake of an election dominated by insurgent rhetoric. In addition to hiring lobbyists, many newly elected House Republicans have begun holding big-dollar fundraisers in Washington to pay off debts and begin preparing for 2012.
In addition to Johnson, Sen.-elect Mike Lee (Utah) has announced that energy lobbyist Spencer Stokes will be his chief of staff. Tea party favorite Rand Paul (Ky.) has hired anti-union lobbyist Douglas Stafford as his top senatorial aide.
In the House, Rep.-elect Charlie Bass (N.H.) has named food industry lobbyist John W. Billings as his chief of staff. Billings was a senior aide to Bass during an earlier stint on Capitol Hill.
Rep.-elect Chip Cravaack (Minn.) has hired former U.S. senator and former lobbyist Rod Grams as his interim chief of staff, though aides have said the posting is probably not permanent. Grams's lobbying clients from 2002 to 2006 included 3M, Norfolk Southern and the Financial Services Roundtable, records show.
Other incoming GOP lawmakers who have recruited staff from K Street include Robert Dold (Ill.), Steve Pearce (N.M.) and Jeff Denham (Calif.). John Goodwin of the National Rifle Association, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups, has signed on as chief of staff for Rep.-elect Raul Labrador (Idaho).
Voters in Indiana chose a former lobbyist, Dan Coats, to represent them for a second time in the Senate. But Coats has hired a non-lobbyist as his chief of staff.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the Public Citizen watchdog group, said hiring senior aides from K Street gives their former corporate clients an unfair advantage.
"Lobbyists for the most part are hired guns that represent corporations and other special interests that pay for them," Holman said. "Those lobbyists now have direct access to the political agenda of these lawmakers."
But aides to several GOP lawmakers disagreed, saying these staffers were hired for their expertise and will not grant any special favors to former clients.
"Congressman Bass demands all staff adhere to all House rules and ethics guidelines," said Bass spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne. He added that Billings, who has lobbied for the Food Marketing Institute since 2006, "will lead by example."
Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, said that Stafford "is not a lobbyist in the sense that people think," because he worked for a conservative advocacy group, the National Right to Work Committee. His stint included guiding the group's campaign against "card check" legislation favored by unions, Benton said.
"Senator Paul wants principled people on his staff that actually care about the ideas that he's going to fight for in the U.S. Senate, and that's what Doug has done," Benton said.
In Utah, Lee spokesman Boyd Matheson said Stokes's lobbying background was "not a concern" because most of his work was done in Utah rather than Washington, and because the incoming senator has declared his opposition to earmarks.
Kent, Johnson's new chief of staff, is a former Republican legislative aide and Department of Homeland Security official who went on to head the homeland security practice at Navigators Global. Kent's lobbying clients have included Tyco International, AT&T, UPS, CSX and LCS Corrections Services, among others, disclosure records show.
Neither Kent's nor Johnson's office responded to requests for comment.Lobbying for lobbyists
What the beleaguered lobbying profession needs, one group has decided, is a good lobbyist.
The American League of Lobbyists, a small professional group, unveiled a public relations campaign this month aimed at defending the decency and necessity of the much-maligned profession. The effort includes a video that bills lobbying, from grass-roots organizers to paid advocates on K Street, as "your constitutional right."
"Lobbying is an essential part of our political process," the ad's narrator says. "It gives people a voice and helps average Americans navigate the complex waters of the legislative and regulatory process."
The lobbying league's effort is aimed in part at pushing back against a tide of restrictions on lobbying implemented by the Obama administration, which has made criticizing K Street and other "special interests" a key part of its political message.
The Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group, responded with its own "mashup" version of the ad, replete with statistics about the growing influence of K Street.