Lobbyists flock to Capitol Hill jobs

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Dan Eggen
Friday, March 18, 2011; 2:01 PM

A surge of lobbyists has left K Street this year to fill jobs as high-ranking staffers on Capitol Hill, focusing new attention on the dearth of rules governing what paid advocates can do after moving into the legislative world.

Ethics rules sharply limit the activities of former lobbyists who join the executive branch and former lawmakers who move to lobbying firms. But experts say there are no limits on lawmakers hiring K street employees and letting them write legislation in sync with the policies they advocated for hire.

New tallies indicate that nearly half of the roughly 150 former lobbyists working in top policy jobs for members of Congress or House committees have been hired in the past few months. And many are working on legislative issues of interest to their former employers.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, for example, which led other House panels by hiring six lobbyists this year, is drafting legislation sought by oil and energy firms. At least four staffers on the committee payroll worked for those industries last year.

Washington has long had a revolving door between advocacy and government work, with a steady stream of lawyers, lobbyists and corporate officials moving between the public and private sectors. But the trend picked up on Capitol Hill this year, when an influx of more than 100 new lawmakers provoked a round of hiring by newly named Republican committee chairmen in the House.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) employs four ex-lobbyists, who advise him on issues including telecommunications to energy. His chief policy adviser, Brett Loper, was lobbying last year against the president's health-care legislation on behalf of the medical-device industry. This year, he is helping to organize legislative efforts to undo the new law.

Loper, who declined to comment for this article, filed a voluntary disclosure letter with House ethics officials pledging to recuse himself from "issues specific to his former employer," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

Steel said Loper will continue to work on a health-care repeal and related issues that don't directly affect his former employer.

GOP legislative aides say lobbyists are often desirable hires because they have deep experience in the policy details surrounding major issues. "We try to hire the smartest, most talented people we can for every staff position," Steel said.

But critics say the practice can create conflicts of interest, especially if staffers plan to return to lobbying jobs.

"The bottom line is that many of the most powerful congressional staffers, who are now responsible for working on behalf of the public's interest, used to make a living convincing the government to benefit a client's special interest," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which this month released a list of former lobbyists who are working on lawmakers' personal staffs.

More than four-fifths of the lobbyists hired this year for top jobs on personal staffs went to Republican offices, partly because of openings created when the GOP won control of the House in the midterm elections. Some aides said Republicans are more likely than Democrats to turn to those who lobbied on behalf of trade groups and corporations because of the party's close connections to business groups.

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