Recently, a student in a class I offer on Congress asked me an interesting question. “Can you think of any sitting member of Congress who would not exchange his or her job and the $174,000 it pays for a career as a lobbyist, where the same person might earn millions in exchange for gaining their clients access to their former colleagues?” “Jay Rockefeller,” I blurted out.
The class erupted in laughter.
The student had made his point. Behind it was a not incorrect assumption that in the freest country in the world, too many members of the governing class (which includes people from all three branches of government) who grew famous and influential in serving the public, in retirement make use of the unique vantage point that their years in office afforded them, for private gain. One cannot blame those who wonder whether elected officials they see in hearing rooms and on television are representing their constituents, advancing the national interest as they understand it, or auditioning for their next job. Seen in this latter light, the $174,000 compensation senators and congressmen receive might be regarded less as remuneration than as deferred compensation.
This was driven home just this month, when the Motion Picture Association of America (Hollywood’s voice on the Potomac) retained former Connecticut five term Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd. Out of office for barely two months when he was chosen as the group’s president, Dodd will earn $1.2 million per year.
There is nothing illegal or even untoward in this arrangement. Dodd is too honest and too principled a person to have bartered away his vote or his voice in exchange for a promise of future employment. Nor did he have to. The principal author of that smorgasbord of lobbyist insertions, substitutions, and loopholes, otherwise known as the “Financial Services Bill,” Dodd had to have known that, given the trajectory of Washington careers, a man of his talents would be of value to some high paying employer, eager to influence government policy. His hiring was but the latest example of what George Washington Plunkett had in mind by the term “honest graft.”
Somewhere in the computers of every headhunter in Washington must be a suggested going rate for what a sitting member of Congress can command in lobbyist heaven (known as “K Street"). On a grid may even appear suggested salary ranges for those in leadership, committee chairmen, ranking members on key committees, and for others of lesser influence and years of service.
Under present day law, Dodd will have to wait two years before actually “lobbying” his former peers. (The upping of the ban from one year reportedly led Trent Lott, a former GOP Senate Minority Leader, to leave the Senate one year after winning election to a fifth term.) The ban will not prevent Dodd from advising others in his operation how to pitch certain matters and to whom. Nor will it prevent him from finding out which of his former peers helped advance his employer’s causes. All of them know that their former colleague will help determine how those engaged in the industry he represents dispense campaign largesse next year.
There was a time at which legislators went back home after they left office. That, of course, was when government did less, taxes were fewer and lower, and the federal government intruded less into the workings of the economy. Today, besides the “military industrial complex,” have sprung up a “financial industrial complex,” “an entertainment industrial complex,” “a healthcare industrial complex,” and any number of counterparts, with scores of former legislators and staffers working in them.
Up to now, attempts to close this revolving door of legal corruption, through which past recipients of campaign cash from interested parties, become its dispensers, have been few and far between. Reports that high powered lobbyists with unprecedented access to government officials have acted in ways that may have compromised the nation’s security interests or even may have jeopardized the personal well being of those they once served may change this. The New York Times reports that Robert Livingston (a former chair of the House Appropriations Committee), Toby Moffett (a former congressman), and Democratic power-lawyer Tony Podesta last year helped stall a Senate bill that called upon Egypt to curtail human rights abuses. (“We were just saying to them ‘Don’t do this now to our friends in Egypt,’” Moffett explained.) Their success may help explain why so many in Congress were willing to allow the Obama administration to twist in the wind as it searched for a coherent policy.
Another of Livingston’s clients was Libya, which he represented until 2009. Part of his work entailed resolving legal claims brought by Americans whose relatives Livingston’s client ordered murdered on Pan Am Flight 103.
How many other former officials utilize their proximity to the powerful to oppose sanctions on rogue states, kill weapon systems the Chinese would prefer the United States not develop, retain energy policies that keep the United States addicted to Saudi oil?
The day may not be far off when a student asks me why we allow them to.