Liberals and conservatives agree: Ex-congressmen should put brakes on lobbying careers

Many Americans want former legislators to never lobby at all, new study indicates

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Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, now a lobbyist, speaks with reporters on May 4, 2016. 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP 

A majority of potential voters — both liberal and conservative — back proposed legislation that would force former congressmen and congressional aides to wait longer before cashing in their government experience as lobbyists, according to a new study by the University of Maryland.

Currently, former House members and senior staffers must wait one year, and former senators two years, before they may lobby their former colleagues. The study found nearly four in five prospective voters approved extending former members’ cooling off period to five years or more. Almost one in three said members of Congress should never be allowed to lobby their former colleagues.

Senior congressional staffers aren’t spared potential voters’ dissatisfaction, either: 79 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats would like to see congressional staffers wait two years until lobbying instead of one.  

The transition from lawmaker to influencer-for-hire is a Washington, D.C., tale as old as telegrams and Ford Model Ts: Out of the 61 lawmakers who left office in January 2017, 19 of them found jobs in lobbying shops, though often with titles such as “strategic adviser” to avoid breaking the rules, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

“What’s most striking is the degree of the unanimity of imposing these limits because they are rather severe,” said Steve Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation, which conducted the study. “Former members of Congress are seen as a major conduit in a way that Americans see as not serving the common good or common interest.”

One emerging pattern in particular caught Kull’s eye: how much conservatives favored stricter rules.

“I was surprised how many of these bills come from Republican sponsors, and how the Republican public was much more in favor,” Kull said. “That has not always been the case, and campaign finance reform tends to lean the other way.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle introduced bills earlier this year that would change former members’ lobbying ban to five years. None of the legislation has yet made it out of subcommittee, meaning it’s unlikely to pass during 2017 or 2018.

“Is public pressure alone going to do it? No. But there is an active effort in numerous bills in Congress,” Kull said. “Clearly, members of Congress know that this is the kind of thing that the public is very unhappy about and they would get some credit. At the same time, it does have a pretty significant impact on their future earning potential, so they probably feel ambivalent about it.”

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, a nonprofit government reform group, said similar bills have been floated since passage in 2007 of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which strengthened certain ethics laws and lengthened senators’ waiting periods to become lobbyists from one to two years.

“Ever since the last major change, there have been various bills with longer cooling off periods, and none of them to my knowledge have even gotten a hearing, let alone much attention,” Holman said. “It’s not impossible to achieve, but I think it has to be done on the heels of scandal. These bills normally do not fare well.”

But President Donald Trump’s administration “is appearing to be one of the most scandal-ridden in history,” Holman said, so “now may be the time we pass stronger ethics laws.”

Trump has argued that he seeks to “drain the swamp” that is Washington, D.C., with a package of ethics reforms that, in part, calls for members of Congress to wait five years before working as lobbyists.

Foreign lobbyists are also unpopular among Americans, the University of Maryland study concludes. About 75 percent of prospective voters — 81 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats — support banning senior executive branch officials from ever lobbying for a foreign government.

This isn’t surprising, Kull said, as Americans tune into the mounting investigation into Russian interference in U.S. elections. Former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Richard Gates have already been charged with violating federal law that governs foreign lobbying. (This lobbying work of Manafort and Gates predates their tenure with the Trump campaign.)

Now, senior executive branch officials must wait one to two years depending on their seniority before they may lobby their former agencies on behalf of a foreign government.

Trump required executive appointees to sign pledges vowing to never lobby for another country’s government.

This doesn’t mean foreign lobbyists don’t participate in Trump’s White House: the Center for Public Integrity reported a former Panama lobbyist guided Trump’s new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, through her confirmation process. Trump has also appointed a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.

“The perception that special interests govern played a really key role in Trump’s election,” Kull said. “He spoke so strongly to this concern and said that the people in charge in this administration would not be beholden to them.”

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