In his often-repeated calls to "drain the swamp" of Washington, President-elect Donald Trump has targeted in particular the capital city's so-called "revolving door."
If there is a poster child for what that door represents, it might be former Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana -- a 12-term Democrat turned Republican, who chaired the influential House Commerce Committee from 2001 to 2004 and pushed the controversial Medicare Bill of 2003 through Congress.
The bill was designed, in part, to make drugs cheaper for senior citizens. But it ended up costing taxpayers a fortune -- $549 billion over nine years. It also made huge profits for drug companies, partly because it prohibited Medicare and the federal government, which represented millions of senior patients, from negotiating for lower prices from pharmaceutical companies.
A few months later, Tauzin left Congress to become chief lobbyist for and CEO of The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America where he made an estimated $2 million a year.
"It's a sad commentary on politics in Washington that a member of Congress who pushed through a major piece of legislation benefiting the drug industry, gets the job leading that industry," Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said at the time.
Tauzin denied Fox News’ request for an interview, but has often defended his move. He told the Washington Post that he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer after leaving Congress and credited cutting-edge pharmaceuticals for his survival. "I wanted to work in an industry whose mission is no less than saving and enhancing lives," he told the Post.
Tauzin's route from Capitol Hill to the lobbying world is hardly unique. "Many of the top staffers who helped write the Affordable Care Act then became health care lobbyists," said Tim Carney, commentary editor at the Washington Examiner.
Yet, this common practice is not illegal. Some believe it’s not even unethical.
Paul Miller of the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics says the public benefits from the revolving door. "People don't like to hear that, but government is run a different way. You have to understand how it operates, and you need people like myself to be here every day looking out for your interests, because if you're not, somebody else will," he told Fox News.
Trump’s plan to drain the “swamp” includes three ambitious components:
- A five-year ban on White House and congressional officials lobbying after they leave government.
- A lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.
- A complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.
History has proven it may be easier said than done. Of the thousands of influence peddlers in Washington, one is only considered a "registered" lobbyist if 20 percent or more of one's time is spent lobbying. Nobody measures that 20 percent. It’s an honor system.
"That's where the gray line is," Miller said. "You have people in the PR arena who will say, I do some lobbying but most of it is in PR, so that’s not lobbying, so I don’t have to register. Its people skirting the system in my opinion.”
This has allowed the Obama administration to hire people who did lobbying work, after it vowed it would not. The same test awaits the Trump administration.
Miller said previous attempts to shut the revolving door have backfired. He cited the 2006 ban on lobbyists paying for a congressman's meal. Forbidden from picking up the tab, lobbyists simply found new ways to buy time and influence. "I can call your boss and say I want to have a one on one for an hour over a meal and talk about my issue, settle up with the check, and then push an envelope across the table and say, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s your campaign check.You tell me what looks more corrupt,’" said Miller.
The revolving door’s effect can be insidious, not only enriching those who pass through, but raising the cost of government. Take, for example, the Pentagon where former high-ranking military officers are scarfed up by major defense contractors to not just acquire their expertise, but to preserve the contractor’s connections and their business.
"Fewer and fewer companies are involved in the defense business because the Pentagon does play favorites," said Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste." He added, "Smaller, newer, more agile companies have trouble getting into the process itself. When the Pentagon has 469 billion dollars in cost overruns in its major defense acquisition portfolio, then something really needs to be done."
Doug McKelway joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in November 2010 and serves as a Washington-based correspondent. Click here for more information on Doug McKelway.