GONE — LONG GONE — are the days when members of Congress scrupled to become lobbyists upon their departure from office. Now, representatives and senators spin like dervishes through the revolving door. Some 163 former members were registered lobbyists in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Occasionally, those who’ve lost reelection bids don’t even wait to finish out their terms before lighting out for K Street. In 2008, Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Maryland’s 4th District lost a Democratic primary and hired on at a law firm with seven months remaining in his term.
At the time, we took Mr. Wynn to task, believing that he must have set some kind of record for cynically cashing in — one that would stand for a long time. How wrong we were! Now Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican, has left for what is euphemistically known as the “private sector,” not after losing a reelection bid — but after winning one.
Less than a month after coasting to a ninth term with 72 percent of the vote in her rural district, Ms. Emerson has announced that she’ll resign, effective February, and take a job as president and chief executive officer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), which represents federally subsidized utilities like the ones that dot Ms. Emerson’s district.
She and the NRECA are well acquainted, since the latter has contributed about $72,000 to Ms. Emerson’s campaigns over the years and those of her late husband, who preceded her in office. Her new salary has not been announced, but in 2010, the NRECA paid CEO Glen English, a former Democratic congressman, $1.5 million, according to the Sunlight Foundation. For the next two years, Ms. Emerson cannot personally lobby, but she’ll be supervising the many at NRECA who do.
An advocate of interpartisan civility and a relative moderate in the increasingly conservative Republican caucus, Ms. Emerson is said by those who know her to have grown frustrated at the nastiness and polarization of politics. Her defenders say that her decision must be judged in that light. “I’m not going to criticize her for taking advantage of this opportunity,” Claire McCaskill, Missouri’s Democratic senator, offered. But the ethical indulgence of her colleagues is almost as depressing as Ms. Emerson’s rationalizations, and no more convincing. She knew how hot the kitchen was when she announced for reelection. If she really couldn’t stand it, she could have gotten out then.
Ms. Emerson, through her office, says that she had no inkling of the lucrative job offer until after the election, when the association approached her. Ethics disclosure forms first reported by the Sunlight Foundation show that “final” negotiations began on Nov. 16, precisely 10 days after the election. And then it was apparently a matter of striking while the iron was hot for Ms. Emerson, rather than telling the group that no amount of money could persuade her to abandon her constituents’ freshly renewed trust. “I am not leaving Congress because I have lost my heart for service — to the contrary — I see a new way to serve,” Ms. Emerson explained. Yes: it’s called self-service.