Until a few weeks ago, Joel Leftwich was a senior lobbyist for the largest food and beverage company in the United States. During his tenure at PepsiCo—maker of Cheetos, Lay’s potato chips and, of course, Pepsi-Cola—the company had played a leading role in efforts to beat back local soda taxes and ensure that junk food remained available in schools. But PepsiCo also faced new challenges at the federal level. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by Michelle Obama, had placed new nutrition standards on school lunches. PepsiCo sent teams of lobbyists to Capitol Hill, deluged political candidates with donations, and fired off letters to regulators asking them to weaken the new rules. One such PepsiCo letter requested the redefinition of a “school day” so the company could continue to sell its sugary sports drinks at “early morning sports practices.” Leftwich, a former congressional liaison for the Department of Agriculture, was well positioned to help PepsiCo shore up its allies in the House and Senate.
Last April, Leftwich paid a visit to one such friend, Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, then chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to thank her for opposing nutrition guidelines for food stamp purchases.
Now Leftwich will have far more access to such friends. As the newly appointed staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee, now under GOP control, Leftwich will have wide sway over the law that funds school lunches, which is up for reauthorization this year. PepsiCo can rest easier, confident that the guidelines already in place are unlikely to be strengthened—and may be weakened instead. Leftwich’s new boss, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who took over the Agriculture Committee gavel in January, has set his sights on dialing back school lunch nutrition requirements, which he has called “Big Brother government that’s out of control.”
While all eyes were on the changing of the guard in Congress as Republicans seized control of the US Senate in January, there was an equally profound change taking place among Capitol Hill staff, as many GOP lawmakers handed over the keys to corporate lobbyists like Leftwich.
“We’ve seen a dramatic uptick in K Street moving into congressional staff positions since the Citizens United decision,” says Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s expert on lobbying and ethics. House Speaker John Boehner, he notes, has “encouraged new members to employ lobbyists on their personal and committee staff.”
On almost any big issue coming up for debate during the final two years of the Obama administration—surveillance, trade, healthcare, entitlements, tax reform, climate change—corporate lobbyists will now be attempting to influence their own former colleagues, whose salaries are now covered by US taxpayers.
The new staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, Jeff Shockey, comes to the Hill after working as a lobbyist for many of the country’s leading intelligence-agency contractors, including General Dynamics, Boeing and, just last year, Academi, the firm formerly known as Blackwater. The House Oversight Committee, a key investigative body, will now have a staff director named Sean McLaughlin, a former corporate lobbyist who spent the past three years as a principal at the Podesta Group. Tom Chapman, who earned compensation worth $1,531,453 in 2014 as vice president of government affairs for US Airways, will now earn considerably less as part of the counsel staff for the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, which oversees his former employer. And as Congress takes up tax reform, one of the latest hires to the Joint Committee on Taxation is Ben Gross, who spent more than a decade as international tax director for PricewaterhouseCoopers, a firm that specializes in helping corporations avoid American taxes.