WASHINGTON — It is hard to shock people in Washington with tales of powerful people who parlay their expertise and influence into well-paying jobs in the private sector. But the revolving door has spun to a new level lately, raising even the most jaded of eyebrows.
For months, the motion picture and prescription drug industries have been wooing Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), offering big bucks for him to come lobby on issues that he has overseen as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
With critics — including some fellow Republicans — wincing at the appearance of a conflict of interest, Tauzin resigned last week as committee chairman and announced he would not run for reelection this year, citing health concerns.
"For him to continue to run the committee while he's an active candidate for [the drug industry job] — that really is a no-no," said one lobbyist, who is a renowned wheeler-dealer himself.
The offer, to be head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has been particularly controversial because that group was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the bill Tauzin helped write last year to provide prescription drug coverage under Medicare.
Ken Johnson, Tauzin's spokesman, said that — contrary to allegations by consumer groups and others — there had been no discussion of the chairman's working for the group while the Medicare bill was being written. He said Tauzin had done nothing improper because he was not soliciting job offers and had been scrupulous about complying with House ethics rules. Even before announcing he would step down as committee chairman, Johnson added, Tauzin recused himself from health issues to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The flap comes just two months after the Bush administration's top Medicare official, Tom Scully, left his post to join a law firm — where he is expected to bring his knowledge of the new prescription drug law to a lucrative practice specializing in healthcare. Congressional staff members who helped write the law also have taken their expertise into the private sector.
The controversy spotlights an especially murky area of ethics in the nation's capital. Congressional rules impose few limits on the ability of powerful people to look for private-sector jobs while they still hold public office.
Some members of Congress try to avoid conflicts by not entertaining job offers until they leave office. Others troll for work discretely. Special-interest groups and lobbying firms are always on the hunt, and every announcement of a powerful lawmaker's retirement sets off a bidding war among competing interests.
Top prospects on this year's shopping list of retiring members are Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), an influential lawmaker on taxes, health policy and other hot issues, and Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), chairman of the Budget Committee. The two have joked about joining forces in their own lobbying business, but neither is pursuing post-retirement prospects as conspicuously as Tauzin.
The revolving door long has been a Washington fixture. Officials regularly migrate from Congress or the executive branch to lobbying firms and trade associations, and they naturally gravitate to jobs handling issues they mastered while in office.
So for example, former chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), has remained involved in energy issues since establishing his own lobbying firm after retiring from Congress in 1997. Bill Archer (R-Texas), chairman until 2001 of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, lobbies on tax legislation, as does his former top aide, Ken Kies.
According the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 151 former members of Congress were registered as lobbyists in 2000.
Government ethics laws prohibit former members from directly lobbying for one year after they leave office. However, the rules are less specific on what they can do while in office and looking for post-retirement work.
House members are allowed to discuss the prospect of future employment while still in office. But House rules say that lawmakers may not "permit the prospect of future employment to influence" their official actions. They are encouraged — but not required — to recuse themselves from handling issues that affect their potential employers. Some lawmakers, like Tauzin, hire a lawyer or designate an intermediary to field employment queries.
Many such queries come to members of Congress unbidden, often long before they actually leave.
Former Rep. Bill Gradison, an Ohio Republican, said he was first sought out for a job lobbying for the health insurance industry shortly after winning reelection in 1992. Gradison, who was a senior Republican on an important health subcommittee, resigned from the House to take the job a few months later.
Former Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) said he was deluged with job offers from the day he announced he would not run for reelection. Rather than risk a conflict of interest, he told all supplicants that he would not talk until after he had left office.
"People are best to get out of Congress and then decide what to do," Rudman said.
But a former member of Congress who asked not to be named said he could not afford the luxury of waiting to begin a job search. He said he had extensive conversations with a variety of firms before he left office. "Most of us need a check on the 1st of January," he said. But he objected to what Tauzin had been doing because it was "unseemly" to entertain a job with an industry that so directly benefited from a major piece of legislation he had crafted.
Rumors about Tauzin's retirement from Congress began swirling months ago with reports that he was in line to succeed Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America — a job reportedly worth more than $1 million a year. In mid-January, Tauzin unexpectedly turned the position down.
Valenti said Tauzin told him "he was given a very, very generous offer from another enterprise." Tauzin's spokesman said he turned the movie job down because of health concerns. He had been hospitalized twice in the last two months for a bleeding ulcer, and did not want to travel as much as the movie job would require.
After word surfaced that the other job prospect was an even more generous offer from the drug industry group, consumer organizations and Democrats exploded. They said the job would amount to a reward to Tauzin for helping deliver a Medicare bill last year that was strongly supported by the drug industry.
Johnson, Tauzin's spokesman, said that the congressman was not in formal negotiations with the drug group and had not been given a contract proposal. Still, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Tauzin announced last week that he would recuse himself from healthcare issues.
Even after that, concern spread within Tauzin's party. Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) said some Republicans were worried that Tauzin was making it easier for Democrats to continue attacking the Medicare bill as a giveaway to the drug industry. The pharmaceutical group represents major drug companies such as Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson.
Johnson said that Tauzin's decision to step down as chairman was his own and was not forced on him by Republican leaders. Having decided last weekend not to run for reelection, Tauzin said in his letter of resignation to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that he wanted to step down as chairman to "focus on whatever future awaits me and my family."
© Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times