For many congressmen and senators, Congress is something like the Eagles' song "Hotel California": Members check out, but they never really leave. With the 108th Congress now passed...
WASHINGTON — For many congressmen and senators, Congress is something like the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”: Members check out, but they never really leave.
With the 108th Congress now passed into history, another Washington tradition is playing out as departing members trade their years of service for big paychecks from lobbying groups, investment banks and law firms.
Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., is sifting among offers. Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., will join one of Washington’s top lobbying firms. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who helped write the prescription-drug law, will become president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a drug-industry trade association.
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Critics say the moves exemplify what’s wrong with a Washington culture of insiders that mainly benefits deep-pocketed special interests; others say lobbying is an important part of congressional accountability to society’s various interests and that former legislators bring needed expertise.
Former members of Congress stick around for many reasons: They’ve made friends here. Their kids are in school here. And for many, it’s hard to let go of the heady Washington life.
“I met with Dick Cheney yesterday, and we talked about the Ukraine presidential election,” said Jack Buechner, a former Missouri Republican congressman who lobbied for a few years and now runs a Washington-area nonprofit. “That’s not a conversation you’re going to have at the Silver Dollar diner in Maplewood.”
To be sure, one of the biggest pulls is the big pay. A typical member of Congress makes $158,100 a year (party leaders and the speaker of the House earn more). As lobbyists and rainmakers for banks and law firms, they can make millions. Tauzin, for instance, is said to be receiving a $2 million salary.
The rules say you can’t lobby your former colleagues for one year after you leave office. Even so, 272 former members of Congress have registered as lobbyists since 1995, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
Among the more famous is former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., who lobbies as Bob Dole Enterprises and is special counsel with Alston & Bird, an Atlanta-based law firm. Dole’s former Kansas colleague, longtime Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman, recently landed one of Washington’s most-prestigious lobbying gigs as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents Hollywood’s major studios.
Others have taken lower-profile but still-lucrative jobs, opening doors and providing counsel, but not lobbying directly. That’s the course that Gephardt and ousted Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, are considering.
Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said such a revolving door led to a system in which members of Congress could be making policy decisions not on what they see as the public good, but on self-interest.
Lobbyists often write language inserted directly into legislation, and they help guide how legislation is framed and interpreted.
“Being able to influence 10 votes in the Senate or 25 votes in the House can be worth billions,” said Alex Knott of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.
Defenders of the system note that the founding fathers meant for the people to petition Congress, and lobbyists fill that role.
“It makes sense that people who understand the legislative process, lived that life and know the players are experts,” said a legislator-turned-lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Just as in any other field, you want to get somebody who knows what they’re doing. That happens to be former members.”
Former members can go on the floors of their former chambers and the member cloakrooms off the floors, use the gyms and even keep parking privileges — all places where they can buttonhole former colleagues.
“Anyone who doesn’t think there are certain advantages to being in the steam room?” Buechner said. “Two people naked sitting next to each other … access always helps.”