WASHINGTON – Editor's Correction: In the original story that ran on March 20, 2006, the writer included former Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt in a list of past lawmakers who are now registered lobbyists. However, the two former leaders are not registered lobbyists, according to the Senate Records Office. Daschle is a special policy adviser with the legal firm Alston & Bird. Gephardt works for DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary as senior counsel specializing in financial and labor issues.
The one-year cooling off periods for the former lawmakers to lobby Congress passed in January. If the two do decide to lobby their prior colleagues, their firms are not required to register them with the Senate Records Office until August 2006.
What do John Ashcroft, Fred Thompson, J.C. Watts, Zell Miller and have in common these days?
They are all former members of Congress — and they are all registered lobbyists.
Former members who leave office for the lucrative world of lobbying — the so-called 'revolving door' — have received some rare attention recently as former colleagues still in office debate new lobbying reforms. Proposed rule changes could have a major impact on former lawmakers' activities on Capitol Hill.
"The rules are now under scrutiny," said Larry Noble, director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "Former members of Congress can provide two things as lobbyists — they provide an insider's knowledge of the legislative process and how Congress deals with certain issues. And they also provide access. Their calls will be returned."
Current House and Senate lobbying reform efforts on Capitol Hill have focused in part on restricting some of former members' special privileges, like activities on the House and Senate floor and access to the in-house gym. Proposed Senate reforms also include an extension of the one-year "cooling off period" in which former members can't directly lobby other members after they leave office.
Sources say it's hard to gauge how often former members choose to use these privileges to lobby, or how useful they are, but many seem convinced that these are just small tools in a broad arsenal of advantages former members have in the influence industry.
"These are the people that really get things done," said Alex Knott, director of the LobbyWatch project at the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. "There is a premium on them and there is a reason."
According to a 2005 report detailing the extent of former members' lobbying activities by the public interest group, Public Citizen, more than 300 former members of Congress have registered as lobbyists since 1970.
Since 1998, 86 members have left Congress only to lobby on behalf of domestic and foreign interests — that's about 43 percent of all retiring members who left for reasons other than moving to another elected office or to the administration, or death.
"What we do know is it's more commonplace than it used to be and the reason is, there is so much more at stake right now," in terms of big-money contracts, federal aid, grants – the big federal pie, said Craig Holman, campaign finance expert for Public Citizen.
The American public should be wary, he added.
"It's is one of the primary avenues for special interests to gain special control and to influence public policy," he said. "This is a way for moneyed interests and special interests to step into the halls of Congress and basically offer lucrative employment to members and their staffs. It makes members think about private interests rather than public service."
John Fortier, congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said he doesn’t think the problem is that intense. "Former members are only a percentage of lobbyists," he said. About 30,000 people are registered lobbyists, according to best estimates, though it is not clear how many of them are active, he said.
Big Names, Powerful Influence
Big shots in Congress will naturally demand top dollar as lobbyists, say experts. Former Sen. Robert Dole, R-N.C., who recently made headlines when it was revealed he was hired by Dubai Ports World to help sell its deal to manage U.S. ports after considerable congressional criticism, reportedly signed onto Washington firm, Alston & Bird, for upwards of $1 million last year.
While rank and file House and Senate members make around $165,000 a year, the average high-level Washington lobbyist makes at least $300,000 a year, with many former members making much more than that, according to reports.
"It's enticing for a lot of them to go over to that side," said Noble.
And many have. It seems like many lobbyists of today were newsmakers on C-SPAN just yesterday: Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., former Homeland Security Department undersecretary and representative Asa Hutchinson and his brother, former Sen. Tim Hutchinson, both Arkansas Republicans; Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Sen. John Beaux, D-La.,
Former Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., once chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, left office in 1999 in a cloud of controversy over marital infidelities. He went on to create one of the most lucrative lobbying firms in Washington, pulling in almost $40 million since it opened the same year he retired from Congress.
The Livingston Group is now ranked the 12th largest non-law lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., and has lobbied on behalf of defense contractors like Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, several U.S cities and the foreign countries of Turkey, Morocco and the Cayman Islands.
According to the Public Citizen report, Livingston's firm helped protect $1 billion in aid to Turkey that was in jeopardy when Ankara refused to let U.S. forces use its bases to stage its entry into Iraq for the 2003 invasion. Livingston declined comment for this story.
Critics say the real problem with former lawmakers working as lobbyists is the growing perception that members are routinely negotiating future employment with firms and industries while still in elected office.
Their poster boy for that charge is Rep. W.J "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, left office in March 2004 after announcing he was suffering from cancer.
In January 2005, Tauzin took a $2 million position as the head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, one of the most influential lobbies in Washington today.
He left amid accusations that he was already entertaining the job offer from PhRMA in January 2004, shortly after he helped successfully steer the massive Medicare Modernization Act, which Democratic critics say was too friendly to pharmaceutical companies. Tauzin has denied any conflict of interest.
"Billy Tauzin set a record," said Holman, pointing to the $2 million salary.
Bradley Smith, a law professor for Capital University Law School in Ohio and former Republican Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said he "can see why people are disturbed" by the so-called "revolving door."
"I think that it comes down to government being too big," offering too many plums to private interests, he said.
'Lobbying is Fairly Hard Work'
Rick Tyler, spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his firm Gingrich Communications, called the focus on limiting former members' activities on Capitol Hill "plain silliness." He said if reformers really want to combat the unseemliness of big money interests influencing Congress, they could start by reducing the campaign fundraising performed by Washington lobbyists seeking access to the levers of power.
As for members being accused of using their position to go after lucrative lobbying jobs right after office, Tyler said there seems to be no widespread abuse.
"It’s perfectly legitimate for a former member who has an expertise in a certain area, when they step down, to go back into that field," he said. However, "It would be inappropriate for a member who has a conflict of interest to be negotiating a future deal in return for legislation."
In itself, lobbying is not a dirty word, argues former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., who served in the House for 20 years. It is part of the American democratic system, and as long as former members serve ethically and with decorum, they should not be disparaged, he said.
"I have no trouble with it at all," said Frenzel, noting that no one should be surprised that companies and lobbying firms go after former members. "Lobbying is fairly hard work. If you can't get in to see a congressman, you can't get paid as a lobbyist."