When Congress grappled with lobbying and ethics legislation last year, one topic was particularly sensitive for members: whether -- and how much -- to constrain their own, and their staffers', future job prospects as federal lobbyists.
K Street is a popular destination for those leaving Congress. Between 1998 and 2004, according to a study by the watchdog group Public Citizen, some 42 percent of former House members and 50 percent of former senators who were available to do so became registered lobbyists. Among the draws: Lobbyists and trade association executives increasingly earn salaries in the high six figures and sometimes upwards of $1 million. Congressional salaries, by contrast, are now $169,300, with senior staff topping out at 95 percent of that amount.
Critics have argued time and again that the long-standing rules governing post-congressional work did little to prevent members and top staffers from using their positions to curry favor with potential employers or to stop recent former members and senior staffers from exploiting personal relationships and inside information they gleaned in public service to benefit the private interests that hire them.
Pressure to build up the speed bumps on the Hill's exit ramp to K Street increased in late 2005 when a number of nonprofit advocacy groups, including Public Citizen, Common Cause, and several farm policy organizations, formed a coalition called the Revolving Door Working Group and enlisted some reform-minded lawmakers as allies.
Talk of broader restrictions on job prospecting and on lobbying by members and top staffers who have recently left Congress touched off a minor panic on Capitol Hill throughout much of last year. Rumors hinted that a stampede off the Hill would occur before any new rules took effect on January 1, 2008. "My phone was ringing a lot in the last quarter of the year," says Nels Olson, a managing director in the Washington office of headhunter Korn/Ferry International.
In the end, neither the so-called revolving-door reforms nor the exodus from Capitol Hill quite lived up to the advance billing.
Still, the tougher post-employment lobbying rules that the Senate imposed on itself and its top staffers may already have had some impact. New restrictions on job negotiations for those working on the Hill, meanwhile, are just beginning to play out.
At the start, the Revolving Door Working Group had pushed Congress to double the one-year "cooling off" period -- when former members are banned from lobbying the chamber they served in and senior staff may not contact the offices or committees they last worked for. The group also argued for expanding the definition of banned lobbying activities well beyond the "direct contacts" already prohibited by law, to include conceiving, planning, and overseeing such contacts.
Initially, ethics reform legislation in both chambers included a two-year lobbying ban for lawmakers and for senior staffers, defined as those whose salaries were 75 percent or more of members' salaries. (In 2007, that meant staff members earning at least $123,900.) The Senate measure also initially broadened the definition of prohibited lobbying.
But rank-and-file House members staged a revolt against the two-year ban and threatened to scuttle the entire ethics measure in the Judiciary Committee. The House leadership agreed to drop that provision. Public Citizen's Craig Holman, the lead lobbyist for the Revolving Door group, says he was "blindsided" by the sudden reversal and blames "the middle layer of members, those who'd been around for 20 years or so and were obviously looking at retiring sometime soon."
Reform advocates did wrest a concession, however. House members and top staffers negotiating for private-sector jobs would have to disclose that fact within three business days and recuse themselves from "any matter in which there is a conflict of interest or an appearance of conflict" with the prospective employer. Senators included similar requirements for their top staff, but barred any senator from negotiating for a lobbying job until his or her successor had been elected.
In the end, the House voted to keep the post-employment lobbying rules for lawmakers and senior staffers essentially unchanged. The Senate did impose a two-year ban on direct lobbying for retiring members but didn't have the heart to subject their senior staffers to the same prohibition. Instead, the range of contacts that would be off-limits to a former staffer for a year was broadened to include any Senate office, and not merely the office or committee for which the staffer last worked.
Some circumstantial evidence suggests that the tougher rule might have had an effect. Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., abruptly announced in November that he would depart before the end of his term -- then promptly hung out a shingle on K Street with a longtime buddy, former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and both men's sons. (Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who also quit in November, has not announced his plans.)
Thirty-five senior congressional staffers left in the last weeks of 2007, according to reports that Congress posted in accordance with the new ethics law -- 27 from the Senate and eight from the House. "There was definitely more [departure] activity" than usual, Olson says, "although not as much as some anticipated."
Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., each lost their chief of staff to K Street, and Stabenow also lost a senior policy advisor. Two legislative directors for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., went last year to the same lobbying firm. And some staffers left without having lined up their next jobs. (See table.)
In all, at least 13 of the departing Senate aides, or nearly 50 percent, went to K Street jobs; among the eight House staffers who left, at least six took lobbying-related work. "The lightning struck a lot of people between Christmas and New Year's," says longtime lobbyist Tony Podesta, citing a few of the Senate chiefs of staff off the top of his head.
Of course, the departures also reflect the continued robust demand for senior Hill aides, at least at some firms. Podesta's own shop recently hired a much-sought-after House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee staff director as well as two other House aides and a Senate aide. Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart hired the two Klobuchar aides after they were recruited by firm member Jonathon Jones, former chief of staff to Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del.
According to headhunters, former senior Democratic staffers command a significant premium. Olson says he hears of salaries ranging between $250,000 and $500,000 at lobbying firms, and a bit less for corporate in-house lobbyists. But Republicans with in-demand skills are still finding plum jobs. Podesta's recent hires, for example, include the former minority staff director at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "With more and more congressional investigations going on, it's useful to have someone who understood how it all works," Podesta says.
Those leaving the Senate, however, say that the tougher new rules played little or no role in their year-end departures. Lott told reporters shortly after his retirement announcement that he had been considering it since 2006, and he noted that the new rules don't prevent anyone from doing the strategic work that former colleagues often do at lobbying firms.
At Johnson, Madigan, new hires Sean Richardson and Sheila Murphy (the two Klobuchar aides) also say that the rules had virtually no impact on their decisions. "It wasn't a big part of my thinking, to be honest," Murphy says. "Less than zero," says Richardson. In separate interviews, both said that the main consideration was getting control over their schedules, for family reasons. When Richardson left, he says, he had one young son and a baby on the way; Murphy is a single mom with an adopted daughter, now 3 years old. "I needed a little more sanity," Murphy says. Becoming eligible for civil service retirement benefits in November, after 25 years on the Hill, she said, also helped clinch her decision.
Their new boss, Jeff Peck, said that the impending rule change didn't enter into his hiring decisions either. "We don't hire like that," Peck says. "We look for the best person we can find. We had some needs for senior people."
Not surprisingly, new hires bristle at the focus on their K Street salaries and at the notion that they are hired for their Rolodexes. Cynics may say "that all that matters are your personal connections," says Katherine McGuire, former minority staff director at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and now vice president of government relations at the Business Software Alliance. But K Street employers want people who are "steeped in policy and good at building consensus and advancing the legislative process," she says.
A few, however, say that the new law did affect their decisions. Hatch's departing chief of staff, Patricia Knight, told Utah newspapers that her leaving was timed to beat the new law. Moreover, the ban on talking to any Senate office, she told the Deseret Morning News, was "a little unfair. It's not like I have a big influence with people I haven't met," says Knight, who subsequently set up her own firm to advise clients on government relations.
The new law may also have spurred evasive action. One former senior Senate aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a subordinate had declined a pay raise in order to stay under the salary threshold that triggers the post-employment lobbying restriction. More aides, he said, would inevitably do the same and might look to legally supplement their reduced salaries by working part-time on their senator's political campaign. "I guarantee you, it will be happening," he says.
Some observers expect members and senior staffers to look for ways to ease the new strictures on job negotiations. The new rules seem to allow members and senior staffers to avoid recusing themselves if they hand off negotiations to a third party. "A number of attorneys," Olson says, "will do well with this legislation."
Out The Door
This table lists senior Senate and House staffers who left their posts between November 13 and December 31, 2007 -- after the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act was signed into law but before it became effective on January 1 -- and took or sought jobs in the influence industry.
Senior counsel, Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee
Executive vice president, National Cable & Telecommunications Association
Chief of staff, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Breaux-Lott Leadership Group
Chief counsel, Veterans' Affairs Committee
Director, Washington office, TriWest Healthcare Alliance
Majority tax counsel, Finance Committee
Retired from government; looking at private-sector opportunities
Chief of staff, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah
Founder, Knight Capitol Consultants
Counsel, Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee
Director of government affairs, Microsoft
Senior policy adviser, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Associate vice president for government affairs and policy, Generic Pharmaceutical Association
Chief of staff, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Principal, Bockorny Group
Minority staff director, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
Vice president of government relations, Business Software Alliance
Chief of staff, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Partner, Virilion; independent political consultant
Legislative director, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Lobbyist, Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart
Senior professional staff member, Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee
Senior international adviser, Hogan & Hartson
Deputy staff director, Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee
Partner, Cypress Group
Amador (Dean) Aguillen
Director of member services, Office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Senior vice president, Ogilvy Government Relations
Senior adviser, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa.