The whirling revolving door
What do you call a long-time congressional staff member? A chump.
Lawrence Lessig , the Harvard law professor who has been on a crusade against the corrupting influence of money in politics, says that is increasingly how insiders view those who stay on for long stints on Capitol Hill rather than cash in on their connections and behind-the-scenes knowledge to join the ranks of high-paid K Street lobbyists.
“The chumps are the people who don’t cash out in time,” he told CommonWealth last year. “And the smart people are people who’ve figured out-well, I’ve been here long enough, I’ve been on this committee, I can now cash out and have a successful career as an influence peddler.”
Yesterday’s front-page of the New York Timestrained its sights on the influence peddlers, and found that the getting for them was awfully good. Maybe not so much so for the workings of representative democracy.
The revolving door is now spinning so furiously that nearly half of all registered lobbyists in Washington are former government employees, a dramatic increase from 18 percent in 1998, according to a recent set of reports the Times cites from the Sunlight Foundation. These “revolving-door lobbyists,” most of them from Capitol Hill, accounted for almost all of the near doubling of lobbying revenue from $703 million in 1998 to $1.3 billion in 2012. What’s more, the Times says many of the new members of the tassel-loafered crowd have barrelled full-speed through huge loopholes in new ethics rules adopted in 2007.
In one example, the chief of staff to a Republican Arizona congressman who was heavily involved in efforts to revamp the government’s role in mortgage lending left to work as a lobbyist for a private mortgage insurance company. He started his lucrative new lobbying work the day after he left Capitol Hill, and he was free to immediately contact congressional staff members he had just supervised because his last staff salary was $128,000.
In other cases, former staff members skirted the intent of the new rules due to payroll accounting gimmicks. In one case, a top aide to US Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, left to lobby for JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg L.P. Because he was paid out of a House Democratic leadership account, he was only prohibited from contacting top Democratic leaders for one year, not other members of the House Financial Services Committee, where he had served as a top staff member during the 2008 financial crisis.
While the Times focused on former congressional staffers, who now often see their government work as a stepping stone to lobbying riches, members of Congress themselves have increasingly joined the ranks of the Washington influence peddlers. In the 1970s, says Lessig, just 3 percent of outgoing members of Congress went into lobbying. In recent years, that has soared to more than half of all departing senators and more than 40 percent of retiring House members.
A similar pattern plays out locally on Beacon Hill. As CommonWealth’s Bruce Mohl reported last week, former state senator Steven Panagiotakis, who gave up his seat and chairmanship of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee in 2010, rocketed last year to the fourth highest paid Beacon Hill lobbyist, pulling in $324,500. He joined with lots of familiar Beacon Hill faces on the list of top 20 lobbying earners, including former Senate president Robert Travaglini, who edged him out for third place on the gravy train.
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