As a class of newly elected members of Congress prepare to swear their oath as public servants, another class, of those retiring this term, are taking private pledges in the office towers dotting downtown Washington, DC. Those pledges, employment contracts to lobby their former colleagues on behalf of corporate interests, have become an increasingly biennial traditional for both parties.
Yesterday afternoon, Duke Energy, the coal-fueled utility company based in North Carolina, sent out a press release stating that they are “pleased” to announce that Congressman Health Shuler will be “joining our team in Washington.” He will lead the company’s federal government affairs (i.e., lobbying) efforts.
It should be no surprise that Shuler, a prominent Blue Dog conservative Democrat who chose to skip re-election after Republicans gerrymandered his district, is among the first to reveal his new gig as an influence peddler. Another top Blue Dog, Representative Mike Ross of Arkansas, is one of the only other sitting lawmakers this year to already make public his plans to head into lobbying.
Earlier this year, I helped found the corruption watchdog blog Republic Report to keep an eye on the influence industry and its corrosive effect on policy. Back in July, following reports that Shuler had begun negotiating for a job on K Street while still serving in office, and setting policy that could impact his future employers, my former colleague Zaid Jilani, now the PCCC’s lead blogger at The Daily Change, and I asked him about his plans.
He bluntly told us that “no,” he is not seeking a job as a lobbyist. But, the former Redskins quarterback did inform us that he planned to “Have a better job than you guys” (emphasis added):
FANG: It’s been reported a month or two ago that you’re already negotiating for a lobby job because you’re retiring this year
SHULER: Ha! No, I’m on the phone with my wife.
FANG: But you’re not even negotiating with the Majority Group, or any of these other lobbying firms on K Street?
SHULER: Nope. You read it wrong, buddy. […] Rob worked for me; Walt was my colleague. I can have a conversation with them if I want to.
FANG: Are you planning to become a lobbyist?
JILANI: What do you plan to do after you retire?
SHULER: Have a better job than you guys have, that’s for sure.
Though Shuler has already accepted the position with Duke Energy, he is still helping to lead a bipartisan coalition, along with Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID), to deal with the “fiscal cliff.” Shuler has promised an “all options” approach, one that will undoubtedly affect his soon to be employer. Duke Energy benefits from a host of tax subsidies, so much so that Citizens for Tax Justice found that the company paid an effective tax rate of negative 3.9 percent from 2008–10 while making over $5.5 billion in profit.
The press release has a disclaimer that Shuler will abide by House Ethics rules and not vote on any legislation affecting Duke Energy. But those rules are laden with loopholes and Shuler can certainly craft legislation and vote on broad measures that impact tax policy affecting his future employer.
Thousands of former congressmen, federal regulators and staff regularly head to K Street to collect high-paying salaries, often from businesses that have benefitted from their actions in government. There are dozens of high-profile examples of this form of corruption, from former Senator Tom Daschle to former Representative Billy Tauzin, all securing multimillion-dollar paydays from industries they cultivated while in office. A new report shows how military contractors routinely court retired generals, some with wide sway over weapon purchases, with lavish paydays.
The sum of this dynamic is that people in government have much bigger incentives to sell out to industry, even when doing so hurts the public interest. While it seems likely in some cases, behind the scene job negotiations for officeholders become little more than bribery; we haven’t seen federal prosecutors too eager to prosecute this type of corruption. Part of the problem is actually cultural. In Washington, the sell-outs, the men and women who make the most money as industry hacks, are the winners. From high society tabloids like Washington Life to the Beltway media, those who spin through the revolving door are adulated and celebrated.
Maybe that’s why Shuler seemed so certain of a gleaming post-congressional career path.
In his latest, George Zornick writes that Chairman “Mary Shapiro’s Departure Creates an Opportunity for a Stronger SEC.”