Almost a third of the Blue Dog Democrats who retired or were defeated in 2010 have gone to work for organizations that lobby their former colleagues in Congress, according to an iWatch News review.
The Blue Dog ranks were devastated by the 2010 election, falling from a high of 54 to 26. Of those no longer in Congress, eight have moved through the “revolving door” to employment with lobbying entities.
The conservative Blue Dogs formed a key voting bloc for much of the last congressional session, drawing impressive fundraising from energy, financial and health care industry groups hoping to impact proposed legislation from the Obama administration. However, once that legislation was either passed or stalled, industry groups began abandoning the pro-business coalition, instead favoring their Republican opponents.
Some have expressed interest in running for their seats in 2012. Others have opted to retire. These are the eight who went on to work for organizations or companies that engaged in federal lobbying during the first quarter of 2011:
- Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, now works for Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz.
- Walt Minnick of Idaho is employed by The Majority Group.
- Allen Boyd of Florida works for the Twenty-First Century Group.
- Charles Melancon of Louisiana works for the International Franchise Association.
- Brad Ellsworth of Indiana is employed by Vectren.
- Bart Gordon of Tennessee now works for lobbying giant K&L Gates.
- Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota is employed with Alston & Bird.
- John Tanner of Tennessee is now employed with Prime Policy Group.
Good government advocates raise the alarm about former congressmen influence-peddling on their old stomping grounds. “It often appears that members of Congress are using their public service as a stepping stone to a far more lucrative job,” said Mary Boyle, vice president for communications at Common Cause.
Former Blue Dog Earl Pomeroy disagreed. “I don’t feel like I have lowered my moral standard or that you can’t work as an advocate in Congress but not [when you’re] outside Congress because it’s somehow dishonorable” he said. “If I believe in something, I have a fundamental First Amendment right to try and advance a cause.”
“I spent 18 years building a reputation for integrity and I’m not going to squander it.”
Pomeroy, the sole representative from North Dakota from 1993 until January of this year, said he took a job with Washington power lobby firm Alston & Bird because he wanted to continue to have a hand in the health care debate. He pointed out that voting for President Obama’s health care law may well have cost him his seat, and “I darn sure want to make sure it works.”
In a press release announcing his hiring, Alston & Bird advertised his long work on health care issues while adding that Pomeroy “has been one of the most-respected and best liked members of Congress who is known for working well with both Republicans and Democrats.”
According to their first-quarter disclosure statements filed with the Senate Office of Public Records, Alston & Bird has received at least $1.5 million in lobbying contracts for health interests. Clients include trade organizations like the American College of Gastroenterology and companies like Novo Nordisk and Humana.
Pomeroy said firms are drawn to the moderate nature of the Blue Dogs, who showed themselves to be politicians not bound by one ideology and can work with people on both sides of the aisle.
Former Rep. John Tanner agreed. Compared to someone on one of the “ideological extremes … there is a certain attractiveness to people who are a little more pragmatic,” he said. The Blue Dogs’ willingness to work towards compromise is “attractive when you get outside the political arena.”
With a laugh, he added, “Most people admire moderation, except in politics in this country.”
Tanner, one of the founding members of the Blue Dog coalition, retired after 22 years representing Tennessee’s 8th District. He is now vice chairman for Prime Policy Group, which brought in at least $2.7 million in lobbying contracts during the first three months of this year. The firm itself is bipartisan — its chairman is Charlie Black, a well-known Republican strategist — which Tanner said appealed to him.
As with Pomeroy, the firm’s press release announcingTanner’s hiring stresses his history of bipartisanship in Congress. “Strong bipartisan leadership has been a founding principle for our firm. As a fiscal conservative, John is respected by both Democrats and Republicans,” Black wrote in the release.
While the Blue Dogs’ politics may have been attractive to lobbying firms, Professor Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas said that the Blue Dogs also cultivated ties with lobbyists. “I think that the Blue Dogs, by and large, were often encouraging outside groups to lobby them,” said Loomis, a political scientist who has authored studies both on the Blue Dogs and the revolving door in Congress.
“They were people who wanted to be players, by and large, and I think that they attracted attention because they often didn’t want their votes to be taken for granted.”
House ethics rules passed in 2007 prohibit former House members from lobbying within the legislative branch during a one-year “cooling off” period after leaving office, under the threat of possible felony charges. As long as former members of Congress are not directly lobbying their colleagues, however, they can be hired by any firm that wants them.
Boyle warned that it would be nearly impossible to tell if these former representatives were using their influence to help their new employers.
“If I’m a former member of Congress and I’m working with you, and you’re a lobbyist, and I’m saying ‘just call so and so, and ask him this, and say I told him so,’ what is the difference between doing that and me doing it directly?” she asked.
“It’s hard to tell if they’re being honest. The devil is in the details.”
Loomis added that former congressmen may actually be more valuable to their new firms by staying off the Hill. “They have highly recent knowledge of who to talk to and under what circumstances,” he said. “That’s very valuable, certainly more valuable than sending Earl Pomeroy or whomever up to the Hill.”
Pomeroy and Tanner told iWatch News they support the cooling off period and have taken great pains to follow the law, including avoiding social contact with former colleagues.
At the same time, Tanner believes the issue of current members being influenced by lobbyists is “overblown, to some degree. Most of the people I knew were people of good will,” he said. “I disagreed with some of them, both on the left and on the right, but they were not and are not, in my opinion, some sort of evil person who can be manipulated for a vote that is contrary to his or her district.”
And while going into lobbying allows those who lost their seats to continue to have a say in policy matters, it also provides a way for former members to experience life in the free market. Lawmakers in the 111th Congress made $174,000 a year — a nice sum by any measure. But many representatives tried to maintain two homes and multiple cars in Washington and their home district, as well as shoulder the cost of traveling back home. Although he declined to specify how much he was earning now, Pomeroy offered a comment on his finances.
“I held full-time elected office for 26 years and had some interesting and lucrative offers during that time. I felt more personal reward fighting the good fight and stuck with it until losing re-election for my 10th term,” said the former congressman. “I have since learned that as a general matter, private sector compensation is higher than public compensation, and I am making more than previously.”
For others, it’s less a matter of choosing to go into lobbying and more about taking jobs that are available.
“Where else is there a business opportunity for people in their 60s?” asked Charlie Melancon, a former Blue Dog who represented his Louisiana district since 2004. Melancon said he lost much of his savings in the economic collapses of 2001 and 2008. Combined with maintaining a home in expensive Washington as well as his hometown, he said he had very little left in his savings account when he found himself out of office.
Melancon said he looked for a job near his home and family, but was unable to find anything outside of Washington. “When you still have to work a couple more years, you’ve got to be at the next place where there might be an opportunity, and it was [D.C.]” While he enjoys his role as senior vice president of government relations and public policy for the International Franchise Association, he had hoped to be retired by now. It came down to a simple motivating factor: “I have to continue to work. … I have bills to pay.”
Lobbying provides a better financial lifestyle than that of a member of Congress, according to Loomis. Members who leave the House“make considerably more money and have considerably less hassle,” he said.
“They’re not House members, but if you’re trying to send your kid through college you might be better off being a lobbyist than an elected official.”
Given their geographical diversity, it is no surprise the other Blue Dogs now work for lobbying entities that cover a wide variety of issues. None of those listed responded to requests for comment:
- Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has gone to the offices of Olsson Frank Weeda, a DC-based firm that received at least $360,000 in lobbying contracts during the first quarter of this year. Many of those contracts were from interests in the agriculture and food industries — areas, along with healthcare, energy and Indian affairs, that Herseth Sandlin in her bio says she focuses on. Clients of the firm include McDonald’s, General Mills and the National Frozen Pizza Institute.
- Walt Minnick served only a single term in Congress, representing Idaho’s 1st Congressional District. His former chief of staff, Robert Ellsworth, is listed as the active lobbyist on the disclosure forms for their lobbying firm, The Majority Group, which took in at least $17,500 in lobbying fees for the first quarter of 2011. Minnick himself directly lobbied “senior officials of the Job Corps and USDA Forest Service” as part of a contract from Shoshone County, Idaho.
- Allen Boyd took an active leadership role with the Blue Dogs during his 14 years in Congress. His new employer, the Twenty-First Century Group, brought in at least $365,000 in the first quarter of 2011 from clients such as Sanofi Pasteur, Verizon and Time Warner Cable.
- Brad Ellsworth, a four-term congressman from Indiana, ran for Senate last year. When he lost, he got a job with the local arm of energy company Vectren, working with their government affairs staff. In announcing his hiring, Vectren’s president said Ellsworth’s “legacy of service to the public coupled with the leadership skills he has gained throughout his career make him an ideal fit to partner with local leaders.” Vectren reported spending $15,000 on in-house lobbyists during the first quarter of this year.
- Bart Gordon retired after 26 years in Congress before joining lobbying giant K&L Gates in March to “advise clients on innovation and technology-related issues, including clean technology, nanotechnology, renewable energy, energy efficiency and nuclear energy.” The firm, which made at least $4.5 million on lobbying contracts in the first quarter of this year, has clients such as Dell Computers, Altair Engineering and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
Reporter Laurel Adams contributed to this report.