As newly elected members of Congress took the oath of office Thursday, many of the representatives and staffers they replaced were across town preparing to swear allegiance to brand new masters: the lobbying shops and trade associations that eagerly gobble up congressional alumni and pay them exorbitant amounts to influence their former colleagues.
Take Mark Epley, who was general counsel to former House Speaker Paul Ryan. Before Ryan even left office, Epley agreed to join the Managed Funds Association, an über-powerful trade group that represents several major hedge funds. Epley will start as executive vice president, managing director, and general counsel next month. David Eiselberg will soon settle in as senior director of tax policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, directly after serving as chief of staff for now-former Representative Sam Johnson, a retiring Republican of Texas and high-ranking member of the House Ways & Means Committee that crafted 2017’s massive tax-cut package.
Elected members who left office yesterday are no doubt going to end up on K Street soon, too. “In the 22 years that I’ve done this, this is the most competitive landscape I’ve seen” for former members of Congress, one headhunter for lobbying firms told Politico last week. The Hill and Politico have reported that, among others, former Representatives Pete Sessions (who served as head of the House Rules Committee), Representative Bill Shuster (recent head of the House Transportation Committee), and Representative Joe Crowley, who lost a primary to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and served as chair of the House Democratic Caucus, are all “considering K Street gigs.” (For a former member of Congress, telling a reporter you are “considering” a lobbying job is the equivalent of taking out a want ad, and it’s cheaper.)
On Friday, House Democrats introduced legislation took a first step towards halting the revolving door between Congress and the influence industry. House Resolution 1, dubbed the “For the People Act,” is a massive anti-corruption package that aims to expand voting rights, reform campaign finance, and make it harder for people to walk out of Congress or the executive branch and into a lucrative lobbying job. “Restoring the people’s’ faith in government is really our agenda,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a press event in the Capitol.
HR 1 is arguably the most important anti-corruption legislation introduced in Washington in a generation, though it takes the most timid steps in the areas of the revolving door. It does do several important things: The legislation would outlaw the incentive, “golden parachute” payments from corporations to employees who are leaving to enter a government job. It also implements a two-year ban on federal procurement officers and prevents senior federal officials from taking influence-industry jobs after leaving public service.
Critically, the legislation would also clarify that “counseling in support of lobbying contacts is considered lobbying,” thus triggering registration and disclosure requirements. Former government officials will often avoid these requirements by taking vague consulting or advisory positions, while still functionally serving as a lobbyist. Closing loopholes like this is critical, because vague or inadequate laws around lobbying only push this activity further into the shadows. The post-Abramoff lobbying-reform package of 2007 didn’t slow the number of members heading to K Street—it actually increased, as members sidestepped weakly designed rules. (Amazingly, since 2008, nearly half of the people who left Congress alive joined the influence industry, according to a Politico analysis.)
But HR 1 doesn’t include many of the provisions included in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s sweeping Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, which was introduced last year. That’s not to say Democrats may not also support those goals—Representative John Sarbanes, who is spearheading HR1, also introduced a House version of Warren’s bill last year—but it will be important to watch whether Democrats ultimately include those provisions in any final anti-corruption package.
Unlike HR1, the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act puts a lobbying ban on members of Congress, too—a lifetime one. (Presidents, vice-presidents, cabinet members, and federal judges are also banned for life.) There are multiyear bans on lobbying one’s former office or chamber of Congress for people leaving the staff levels of government work—the bans are for two or six years, depending on the nature of the lobbying work.
K Street may always find a way to pay someone money in exchange for influence work or expertise, in a way that slips through even strongly worded anti-corruption laws. That’s why Warren’s bill also requires former senior officials to disclose their finances for four years after leaving government service, so there can at least be transparency about who is paying them.
Current lobbyists would also be banned from taking government jobs for two years after their lobbying work ends—or six years if they were a corporate lobbyist. The revolving door certainly swings in both directions: For example, Senator Roger Wicker, who just became the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, recently hired a communications industry lobbyist to be staff director of that committee.
Obviously Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell won’t take up whatever anti-corruption legislation the House passes, but the final form of the Democrats’ bill will still inform what the party may actually enact when it eventually controls the Senate and White House, too. It won’t be easy, because both parties benefit from the revolving door: A recent study showed that 29 percent of former House Republicans and 26 percent of former Democrats become lobbyists once they leave office. Ironically, when Democrats gain power is when things get really lucrative for them, as big industries gobble up current and former staffers so they so they can influence their newly powerful colleagues. (Amazon, for example, is hiring Democratic congressional staffers left and right of late.) If Democrats are serious about shutting off the gravy train, the time to show it is now.