The Trouble With That Revolving Door

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the New York Times

The Trouble With That Revolving Door

Last week, an inside-the-Beltway newsletter, First Street, published a unique top-ten list. It reveals which former members of Congress are among the most important Washington lobbyists.

The first four on the list — Senator John Breaux, of Louisiana (who served in Congress from 1972 to 2005), Representative Tom Downey, of New York (1974 to 1993), Representative Victor Fazio, of California (1979 to 1999), and former Democratic House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (1977 to 2005) – are all members of the Democratic Party, which historically has represented the bottom half of the income distribution.

These former Democratic members of the House and Senate are on the cutting edge of a revolution in the political culture of the nation’s capitol. Without attracting the attention of the general public, the career path of retired legislators has transformed the thinking of those still in Congress, Democrat and Republican alike.

When Washington politicians leave office, many, if not most, no longer return home. Instead, they head straight to the lucrative world of K Street, the nation’s lobbying corridor, which runs through the heart of Washington. A former member of the House or Senate with even modest seniority can now expect to walk into a job paying up to $1 million or more a year – and much more when bonuses are paid for bringing in new clients.

There are various estimates of the number of living former members of the House and Senate. The Association of Former Members of Congress has a listing of 592, and estimates there may be as many as 1,000, a large number of whom are no longer employed at all. The Congressional Research Service reported that as of Oct. 1, 2009, there were 455 former members receiving some form of federal pension.

The Center for Responsive Politics has found that 370 former members are in the influence-peddling business, including at least 285 who are now registered as federal lobbyists. The remaining 85 who are not formally registered as lobbyists are described by the center’s website, OpenSecrets.org, as providing “strategic advice” to corporate clients or as performing work classified as public relations.

For Obama and Democratic leaders who are trying to set an election agenda focused on income inequality, wage stagnation, and downward mobility for the middle and lower class, the prominence of Democratic lobbyists has become problematic.

President Obama, in his Dec. 6 speech in Osawatomie, Kan. sought to shift the 2012 election debate onto terrain favorable to Democrats. “Look at the statistics,” the president said. “In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year.” Obama also pointed out that:

For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical C.E.O. who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.

Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said the role of former Democrats in representing corporate America is one of the reasons that the umbrella labor organization has recently broken its firm allegiance to the Democratic Party. “We can’t be positioned as attached to the Democratic Party because there are elements of the party that have contributed to the 99 percent versus 1 percent division in this country,” he said. Hauser cited a key speech by A.F.L.-C.I.O. president Richard Trumka on May 20 declaring organized labor’s independence from either party:

Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country. It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside — the outcome is the same either way.

A case in point is Richard Gephardt, who represented a working-class district in south St. Louis for 28 years. Gephardt served one year as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, six as Democratic majority leader, and eight as Democratic minority leader. Through much of his congressional career he was a staunch ally of organized labor (his father was a member of the Teamster’s Union) fighting for the interests of trade unions on issue after issue.

Dick Gephardt campaigned at the United Auto Workers union hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2004.Scott Olson/Getty ImagesDick Gephardt campaigned at the United Auto Workers union hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2004.

An unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and in 2004, Gephardt had substantial labor backing in the form of get-out-the-vote efforts and key endorsements from the Teamsters, the Machinists, the Steelworkers, and the Ironworkers. In 2003 John Sweeney, then president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said, ”Dick has been a real friend of working people and a powerful voice for working families on issue after issue.”

Upon leaving Congress in 2005, Gephardt joined the Washington offices of DLA Piper as senior counsel. Two years later, he founded his own lobbying firm, the Gephardt Government Affairs Group.

By 2010, annual firm billings had shot up from $625,000 in 2007 to $6.59 million. Gephardt’s client list was blue chip, Goldman Sachs (paid Gephardt $200,000 in 2010); Boeing Co. ($440,000); Visa Inc. ($200,000); Ameren Corp, the energy holding company ($200,000); and Waste Management Inc., the leading provider of trash and garbage removal ($320,000).

A normally voluble political strategist and committed liberal who has worked with Gephardt in past elections said about the former Congressman’s lobbying clientele, “I don’t want to talk on the record, it sucks. It’s a sad situation for us.”

For an ex-member of Congress of either party, the financial appeal of lobbying is hard to resist.

In 2010, former representative Billy Tauzin, Republican of Louisiana, set a record for ex-members, making just over $11.5 million running the drug industry’s major lobbying arm, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

In 2009, former representative James Greenwood, Republican of Pennsylvania, who became C.E.O. and president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization after retiring from Congress, made $1.16 million, along with fringe benefits of $60,000.

That same year, former representative Daniel Glickman, Democrat of Kansas, received $1.33 million and $23,398 in fringe benefits as C.E.O. of the Motion Picture Association of America, according to I.R.S. filings.

With examples like this before them, most incumbent members, as they go about their daily routine of casting votes and attending committee meetings, must have in the back of their minds an awareness that they are likely to go into the influence-peddling business in the future. This knowledge inevitably influences – and arguably corrupts – their votes on legislation crucial to the interests most likely to hire them after they leave the halls of Congress.

The corruption inherent in the open revolving door between Congress and K Street is well described by Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard, in his new book “Republic, Lost.”

Both Fazio and Downey defend their decisions to become lobbyists. Each contends he remains committed to advancing and defending the interests of the less well off.

“When I had options, I made some decisions, one thing led to another, and here I am,” Fazio, who is a member of the Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld law firm, said in an interview. “Clearly when you’ve been in the public sector, you know the system, you know the arguments that are most effective. You can be a very effective advocate.”

“What matters is what the Senate is doing on the payroll tax, not whether some old members of Congress do lobbying,” Downey argued. Downey noted that he has a number of pro bono clients, including advocates of AIDS research, homeless organizations and groups seeking to stop trafficking in women. “At the end of the day, I feel quite satisfied having spent at least half my time on projects for which I am not paid,” he said. In 2010, his firm, Downey McGrath Group, reported lobbying income of $3.32 million from such clients as Time Warner Cable, FedEx, the National Association of Chain Drugstores and the investment bank Lazard Ltd.

Of the four top lobbying Democrats, Breaux — who served as chairman of both the Democratic Leadership Council and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — fits most comfortably into his lobbying role. Breaux won fame in 1981 when, after getting huge sugar subsidies inserted into Republican-sponsored tax-cut legislation, he told reporters, “My vote can’t be bought, but it can be rented.” In 2010, his firm, the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, a subsidiary of the Patton Boggs LLP law firm, had billings of $11.83 million from such clients as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, General Electric, AT&T, Tyson Foods and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Gephardt, in turn, has posted on his firm’s web site a link to an article about the release of First Street’s newsletter, under the headline “Dick Gephardt Named To 2011 List of Top Lobbyists.”

Thomas Edsall

Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.”

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