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Go Rand Paul! Closing the Revolving Door Between Industry and Congress

David Callahan

Listen closely, and you'll often find yourself surprised by just how trenchantly some libertarians critique crony capitalism and how bold their ideas are for breaking the toxic ties between business and government.

Just today, I found myself cheering Senator Rand Paul, who introduced an amendment "that would have stripped ex-senators who become lobbyists of their taxpayer-funded pensions," according to The Hill. Paul said:

I think the ability to serve in the Senate and the House of Representatives is a great honor but I am somewhat sickened and somewhat saddened by people. . . . who leave office and become lobbyists, who leave office and call themselves historians, that basically leave office and pedal the friendships they have found here and the relationships to make money. 

I think its hard to prevent people from being lobbyists but I think if people choose to leave the Senate and the House of Representatives and become lobbyists they should give up something. . . . These people are making millions of dollars lobbying Congress, I think maybe they should give up their pension. Maybe they should give up their health benefits that are subsidized by the taxpayer.

I know, I know. The amendment was a not-so-veiled attack on Newt Gingrinch and, as Paul's colleagues pointed out, from both parties, was overly broad and not realistic. But Paul's broader point is correct that the revolving door between Congress and industry is spinning too fast. As The Hill reported last month:

Corporate headhunters are sizing up the K Street prospects of the retiring members of the 112th Congress — and they like what they see. . . .

Looking to 2013, headhunters said an ex-Republican senator would likely receive the biggest offers from law and lobbying firms. The least-compensated would likely be a former House Democrat, they said.

Former senators could expect to earn somewhere between $800,000 and $1.5 million in annual salary next year at lobby firms, while ex-House members could earn between $300,000 and $600,000, headhunters estimated. They predicted ex-Republican lawmakers would draw bigger salaries than retiring Democrats.

A study published last fall found that 5,400 former congressional staffers have become federal lobbyists over the past 10 years, and that 400 former lawmakers have become lobbyists during this same period. Those are shockingly high numbers -- and help explain the tremendous clout of special interests on Capitol Hill.

If you want to know how insidious these ties are, consider how the financial industry has bought up a large number of of ex-lawmakers and congressional staff to help get its way in Washington. As a 2010 report by Public Citizen and the Center for Responsive Politics found:

This small army of registered financial services sector lobbyists includes at least 73 former members of Congress, of whom 17 served on the banking committees of either the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate. At least 66 industry lobbyists worked for these committees as staffers, while 82 additional lobbyists once worked for congressional members who currently serve on these key committees. . . .

Prominent former congressional members now lobbying on behalf of financial services sector interests include two former Senate majority leaders (Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Trent Lott, R-Miss.), two former House majority leaders (Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.) and a former speaker of the House (Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.).

The solution to this revolving door is not the Paul amendment, but rather tougher ethics rules governing ex-lawmakers and staffers. Current rules only bar these folks from lobbying for one year, and it's easy for someone to join K Street and wait for that year to pass while doing behind the scenes lobbying work.

The  best solution I've seen to this problem is contained in sweeping legislation proposed by Senator Michael Bennett, a Democrat from Colorado. Bennett's "Plan for Washington Reform" would: 

  • Place a lifetime ban on Members of Congress becoming lobbyists 
  • Ban congressional staff from lobbying their former boss for 6 years 
  • Ban former committee staff from lobbying their former boss or any member of the committee who was active during their time on staff for 6 years 
  • Ban lobbyists from joining congressional staff or committee staff for 6 years
  • Require ‘Substantial Lobbying Entities' to report on the former Members of Congress and former Congressional staff that they employ 
  • Enhance maximum fine for violating lobbyist regulations to $500,000

Forget Rand Paul. Bennett is the serious reformer here. Unfortunately, very few powerful Democrats have rallied behind this proposal. It's time that they do.