Friday, March 15, 2013

The Congressional Revolving Door

It's making me dizzy!

For years it's been all too apparent who our "elected" representatives actually represents --- and it's not The People --- those who actually vote them into office; but those who donated the most to their political campaigns --- and/or offered them the best paying jobs after they leave office. That's no secret.

But we had a rare inside glimpse of this when we saw Mitt Romney's "47%" video that was taken at a fundraiser that cost each donor $50,000 for a dinner to hear one of our presidential candidates finally tell us the truth.

It was Republican Senator Phil Gramm who introduced the legislation that in 1999 de-regulated the banks. And then miraculously, three years later when he left office, Gramm went to work for the Swiss bank UBS as a vice president. The banks got their bailouts and Gramm got a cushy job, but what did The People get in return, besides mass layoffs, a housing bubble and a wrecked economy? He certainly hadn't been representing The People.

The Congressional revolving door has only escalated to the point when I'm beginning to wonder when they'll be so blatant as to start advertising their skills for the highest bid on eBay.

We can't get congress to pass a law to reform the Congressional revolving door, reform the unfair tax code or reform the election and campaign laws. That's because every member of Congress personally benefits from the status quo. Therefore, it has never mattered who we elect, or what party we elect into office --- because once they're in, they become a part of the corrupted system --- and they won't rock the boat from which they will personally and financially gain.

Companies, labor unions, and other organizations spend billions of dollars each year to lobby Congress and federal agencies (in addition to giving campaign contributions to elected officials and candidates). Some special interest groups retain lobbying firms, many of them located along Washington's legendary K Street; while others have their own lobbyists working in-house. (The Hill's 2012 Top Lobbyists)

Sometimes (such as in John Boehner's case with the tobacco companies), money from lobbyists is handed out right on the floor of Congress. Does it get any dirtier than that? But there are many more anecdotal stories like this that we've read about in the newspapers going back decades.

It was recently announced by Politico that Democrat Senator Howard Berman is going to Covington & Burling to work as a "senior policy adviser" (a lobbyist), just as former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) joined the company last week. Both Kyl and Berman will advise clients on tax policy, intellectual property, health care and immigration. Ethics rules prevent Berman from lobbying for one year and Kyl for two years (*wink-wink*)

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Missouri) took over a job as head of one of Washington’s largest and most influential trade associations, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. She was one of five outgoing members of the House of Representatives—four Republicans and one Democrat—to take lobbying jobs as the new Congress began its work in 2013. A public interest group in Washington says Emerson’s case is the personification of the revolving door in the nation’s capital.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich never had to register as a lobbyist, despite his lucrative position providing "strategic advice" about advancing companies' goals and connecting health care firms to lawmakers. Gingrich also promoted the companies that were paying him in presentations on Capitol Hill. And then their was also Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

There are myriad ways to leverage Washington connections into a well-paying position without officially becoming a lobbyist. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), whose term ended last January, had planned to lead the federal affairs team for Duke Energy. (Shuler's connections to members on the House Budget and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, where he served, will come in particularly handy.)

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) will be a senior vice president of public policy, government and community affairs at Florida's Blue Cross and Blue Shield Company, which is called Florida Blue. At least he waited until the end of his term.

After he lost a 2008 primary, Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) left Congress six months before his term was up to take a job at law firm and lobbying powerhouse Dickstein Shapiro.

Former Rep. Charles Melancon (D-La.) became a senior vice president of government relations for the International Franchise Association after leaving Congress.

Ex-members of Congress know how to pull the levers of power and manipulate the process of getting legislation passed -- or killed. Just ask Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) who serves as a "strategic counsel" to corporate clients from his perch at law firm DLA Piper (after having left another law firm, Alston & Bird). Daschle, who is not a lawyer, has been paid millions of dollars to explain to companies how navigate Capitol Hill and influence policy. He may not lobby lawmakers directly, but he works with his firm's lobbyists to help further his clients' goals. (*wink-wink*)

Another lawmaker who has effectively leveraged his Washington connections is former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) who insisted before leaving office in 2010 that he would not engage in lobbying. He went on to become the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, which effectively made the former Senate Banking Committee chairman the top lobbyist for Hollywood.

After working for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the leading climate change skeptic in Washington, staffer Tom Hassenboehler went to work as a lobbyist for America's Natural Gas Alliance, a lobby for the oil and gas industry.

Former White House heath care policy official Liz Fowler left her position to work in government affairs and policy for Johnson & Johnson, where she presumably works to influence full implementation of the health care law to the benefit of the pharmaceutical giant. She is but one of more than 4,000 current lobbyists, who at one point, worked as congressional staffers.

This sort of "revolving door" activity has largely become an accepted component of Washington life. There have been some efforts to clamp down: Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) once said he planned to reintroduce a bill that would require lobbyists to report their meetings with members of Congress, among other reforms. But the current version of the bill is stalled in committee, and would seem to have little chance to get any further next time around. (Dah!)

The American League of Lobbyists is supposedly pushing to crack down on the practice of lobbying without registering as a lobbyist, and it was reported that the American Bar Association has sought to increase disclosure requirements and ban lobbyists from raising money for members they are currently lobbying.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) who has cosponsored a bill to permanently bar former members of Congress from becoming registered lobbyists, told CBS News and the Center for Responsive Politics that doing so "sends lawmakers a clear message: Americans come first. We expect elected officials to listen to the public's interests, not those of members-turned-lobbyists, and this common-sense measure is the first in a series of steps to bring more accountability and transparency to Washington." (It's also worth noting that Tester took more than a half million dollars from lobbyists in the 2012 election cycle.)

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, said "the revolving door between Congress and K Street has got to stop, permanently. The current lobby ban does not go far enough to end the cozy relationship former members of Congress turned lobbyists enjoy when they leave office."

It's too early to know what most of the outgoing lawmakers from the last Congress will do next. But the Center for Responsive Politics, working with Remapping Debate, has calculated where the members of the last Congress have ended up. Nearly one third of the lawmakers who have found jobs now work for a lobbying firm, and another 44 percent work for a lobbying client or private organization.

Some of those jobs are not necessarily tied to a lawmakers' influence, but in many cases it's not hard to draw a line between that influence and his or her new position. One recent example is Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) who is to head the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank.

Another is former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) who jumped to work for his former top contributor, JP Morgan.

Overall, 318 members of Congress registered as lobbyists at some point between 1998 and 2012, including 153 who lobbied at some point in 2012. One hundred sixty-three former members of Congress engaged in direct lobbying in 2009, while many others made money as a result of their connections without actually registering.

Among those who have publicly defended the practice of lawmakers becoming lobbyists is lawmaker turned-lobbyist Vic Fazio of California, who told the New York Times, "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." 

Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics, says "Former members and staffers are clear assets who can potentially offer clients shortcuts and a leg up on their competition. They have expertise on the issues, they know how to navigate the halls of Congress, and they have personal connections. To have a former member lobbying on your behalf is like hitting a home run -- but they're paid top dollar for their work and hiring one is expensive. So while they make effective advocates, the question is: are we getting policy based on the merits or the money?"

Read my post: Lobbyists on K St. paid like CEOs on Wall St.

Chart below: --- These companies will spend billions of dollars for lobbyists (members of Congress), but they won't pay their fair share of taxes or pay fair wages to their employees.

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