It's that time of year again in Washington, when congressmen who once ran for office calling for change inside the Beltway are heading straight to K Street.
Retiring Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) will join Duke Energy early next year as senior vice president of federal affairs. Rep. Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat who lost his primary, is joining insurer Florida Blue as a government affairs executive. Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), who resigned July 31, will form a public affairs firm, Republic Consulting, with lobbyist Hunter Bates.
So much for closing the revolving door.
Not much is stopping lawmakers and staffers from going straight into Washington's most powerful lobbying shops, collecting handsome salaries for their high profiles, skills and contacts.
Headhunters are excited about several lawmakers who lost election bids this month or left, including Reps. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.), former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Republican Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno.
Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), who did not run for reelection, says he's in the final running for a position at a San Antonio-based company that would have him overseeing government relations and public relations, among other things. But Washington is still a possibility, he told POLITICO. If the San Antono position "doesn't work, I'll probably have to look in Washington," he said.
This sort of revolving door was supposed to stop after a series of highly touted lobbying reforms in 2007, but while everyone is sure to follow the letter of the law, the path to K Street remains open.
Sure, there are some rules: Outgoing House members must wait one year until they may lobby their former colleagues. For departing senators, it's two years, and violating the ban could lead to legal trouble. Former congressmen also don't have House gym privileges.
But former members can still visit their ex-colleagues on the House floor, although they aren't supposed to lobby while on the floor or carry on if they have a financial stake in a bill being considered.
And even after any waiting period is up, high-profile hires simply aren't bothering to declare themselves as lobbyists anymore, using opaque titles such as "adviser" that could mean anything.
There is some backlash to the practice of finding a lucrative private-sector job while there are still big votes to be taken.
"Members of Congress should refrain from accepting employment at a firm until they have officially separated from Congress," said Monte Ward, the newly elected president of the American League of Lobbyists. "Once they have completed the mandatory 'cooling off' period, we will welcome them to the profession."
Tom Susman, director of the American Bar Association's government affairs office, said taking government affairs jobs while still serving in Congress "tarnishes the institution."
"It's human nature to pay more attention to the next step in your life than the one you're leaving, but you're still getting paid for the one you're leaving," Susman said.
Shuler and Altmire aren't leaving until the beginning of January even though they have new jobs awaiting them. And former Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), who lost a 2008 primary, famously signed a contract to work for Dickstein Shapiro while he was still in office.
Some in Congress are interested in changing the rules. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced a bill that would ban former members of Congress from lobbying on behalf of foreign entities for 10 years after leaving office. And Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) is the primary sponsor of legislation that, in part, seeks to amend the federal definition of "lobbyist" and require lobbying registration within five days of a lobbying contact instead of 45 days.
Both measures have languished in committee.
The most critical decision a lawmaker jumping to K Street can make is to follow the letter of the law, said former Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), who's a lobbyist with megafirm K&L Gates and left Congress in 2009 after deciding not to seek reelection.
"Don't bend it; don't break it -- I didn't want to give anyone even a chance to suspect I was breaking the ban," Walsh said. "You can use the [lobbying prohibition] time to learn the issues and make contacts, and anytime I ran into a member, I'd talk politics, family, sports -- anything but issues."
The future employers of Altmire and Shuler say they'll be meticulous about ensuring their star hires follow federal lobbying laws.
Florida Blue "has in place appropriate safeguards to ensure compliance with this and all other laws," spokesman John Herbkersman said, noting that Altmire's responsibilities will also include statewide community affairs, oversight of its foundation and "all corporate social responsibility programs for the company."
Shuler will "certainly be complying with the law, and we have a plan in place to ensure he would. ... This is something we discussed early on," Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams said.
The lawmakers themselves couldn't be reached for comment.
So long as K Street finds former lawmakers useful -- probably as long as Congress exists -- the revolving door will stay open.
Susman, of the American Bar Association, says some Congress-to-K Street revolving door activity is quite helpful in that "you cross-fertilize; you keep organizations from getting ossified."
But he warned that lawmakers and lobbyists should work more closely to beat back the dual notion that congressmen are simply looking to cash in on their experience once they leave public service and that lobbyists have no scruples.
"Unfortunately, our actions sometimes reenforce the public perception that we're sleazebags," he said, quickly adding, "which I do not at all believe is true."
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