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"Revolving door lobbyists are exploiting the rules"

Published: March 24, 2017
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There are now 432 former members of Congress working as registered lobbyists. This “revolving door” is ruining the integrity of our political system. It’s no secret that lobbying firms can offer exorbitant salaries to lawmakers after leaving office. That conflict of interest leaves a cloud over Capitol Hill making us wonder who is truly operating in the public interest.

Thankfully, Congress included a common sense measure within the “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act” of 2007. It bars former members of Congress from lobbying their former colleagues immediately after leaving office. There is a “cooling-off period” of two years for U.S. Senators and one year for U.S. Representatives. 

Unfortunately, the cooling-off period hasn’t limited the revolving door. Slightly less than 66% of the members of the Congress who left office in January of 2015 are now working for former lobbying clients or as lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Remarkably, there are loopholes that allow former politicians to avoid the cooling-off period. For example, David Vitter’s term in the Senate ended this January. However, he was hired earlier this month by a top lobbying firm.

Vitter can’t lobby his former colleagues in the Senate for two years, but he can immediately begin lobbying Trump administration officials on behalf of his clients. This is a violation of the intent of the law, not the letter of the law. All in all, Vitter was an ironic addition to the revolving door. He sidestepped the rules of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 even though he supported the bill and wrote multiple amendments that added ethics regulations.

One of the more controversial additions to the revolving door, former Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), demonstrated another way of avoiding the cooling-off period. Whitfield resigned from office last September while reeling from an ethics scandal. Investigators found that he had granted political favors to his wife who is a lobbyist. Nonetheless, Whitfield was hired as a partner by a powerful lobbying firm within the same month of his resignation. In what other industry is this possible?

Again, Whitfield can’t directly lobby his former colleagues in the House for one year. Nevertheless, the insider knowledge and personal relationships of Representatives like Whitfield can be exploited to gain undue influence for various special interest groups. By the same token, former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) publicly announced, just weeks after leaving office, that he’s considering opening his own lobbying firm. Kirk mentioned that he’s already had talks with Boeing.

Several politicians have also avoided the cooling-off period by merely using other titles. This is what watchdog organizations refer to as “shadow lobbying.” The former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle (D-SD), is the unofficial face of shadow lobbying. Daschle lobbied as an “advisor” or “strategist” for eleven years. He even formed his own “strategic advisory firm” two years before officially registering as a lobbyist in 2016. Daschle skirted the rules for over a decade because he wasn’t required to register if less than 20% of his time was spent lobbying for a single client. Consequently, many people refer to this as the “Daschle loophole.”

To sum up, all of the technicalities for avoiding this waiting period, such as the “Daschle loophole,” need to be eliminated. There also needs to be a much longer cooling-off period for former members of Congress. However, the challenge is obvious. Congress isn’t eager to regulate themselves, nor minimize their future earnings. 

Even remarkably symbolic proposals, such as the “Revolving Door Pension Prevention Act,” have been shunned by our elected officials. That proposal by former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) would have forced former lawmakers making over $1 million a year as lobbyists to forfeit their Congressional pensions. Needless to say, Israel’s bill never received any support. Likewise, Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) wrote a bill, the “Close the Revolving Door Act of 2015,” which would have established a lifetime ban from lobbying for former members of Congress. Predictably, Bennett’s bill never made it out of committee.

Despite the challenges, it’s important to remember that everyone can lobby their elected officials. You only have to pick up the phone or send an email. Corruption is one of those few issues in which all voters can find common ground. There needs to be collective effort to solve this problem. The vast majority of Americans are unaware of the specifics about the revolving door. If they were, there would be a groundswell of support for eliminating it.

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