By Kevin Bogardus - 12/08/10 11:00 AM EST
Lobbyists are being lured back to Capitol Hill as the huge class of freshman lawmakers searches for experienced hands to help it transition into Congress.
At least nine federally registered lobbyists have accepted offers to become chiefs of staff to newly elected Republican House members and senators, according to a review of press releases and media reports as well as interviews by The Hill.
Rep.-elect Robert Dold (R) of Illinois, for example, has hired Eric Burgeson, a vice president at BGR Group, to be his chief of staff. BGR is a prominent Republican-leaning lobby shop that was co-founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R).
Burgeson, formerly a Bush White House aide and Energy Department chief of staff, is an Illinois native who knows Dold’s congressional district well. The lobbyist called Dold a “longtime friend” and said they first met doing advance work for then-Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) 1996 presidential campaign.
Burgeson will not be the only lobbyist joining Capitol Hill’s ranks next year.
John Goodwin of the National Rifle Association will be chief of staff to Rep.-elect Raul Labrador (R-Idaho.); Don Kent of Navigators Global will lead Sen.-elect Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) office; John Billings with the Food Marketing Institute will be chief of staff to Rep.-elect Charlie Bass (R-N.H.); and Todd Willens, who has lobbied at Vitello Consulting, will be chief of staff to Rep.-elect Steve Pearce (R-N.M.).
Despite the prospect of less pay and longer hours, several lobbyists told The Hill that working in the new Congress was too exciting a chance to miss.
Jason Larrabee, founder of Jason Larrabee Ventures, said he couldn’t pass up a job as chief of staff to Rep.-elect Jeff Denham (R-Calif.). The lobbyist said public service still interested him, which is why he decided to return to Capitol Hill (he’d worked previously for former California Republican Reps. John Doolitte and Doug Ose).
“The reason I came back is I still believe in serving the people. Chief of staff is one of the positions that I can do that, and I was fortunate enough to have that opportunity with Mr. Denham,” Larrabee said.
Larrabee lobbied for several local California water agencies and an energy research and development company this year, according to lobbying disclosure records.
Like Larrabee, Spencer Stokes, president of Stokes Strategies, said he wanted to get into government to help change how Washington works. He will be the chief of staff for Sen.-elect Mike Lee (R-Utah).
“I have always been a grassroots guy. I have a great amount of heartburn over the size of government, the fact that the federal government has gotten out of control,” Stokes said. “Although it is a cut in pay, I can survive and I can live. In life, there are only a few opportunities that present themselves where you really can make a difference.”
There is nothing in law or congressional ethics rules that specifically prevents former lobbyists from interacting with their ex-clients while employed on Capitol Hill. The 2007 ethics law mandates only a “cooling-off” period for congressional aides who head to K Street; that law bans former aides from lobbying their colleagues for a period of time.
President Obama did sign an executive order early in his term that slowed the revolving door by stopping political appointments of lobbyists in his administration, though a waiver process was put in place to allow exceptions. That order, however, has no effect on Congress.
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, said “there is good news and bad news” when hiring lobbyists as Capitol Hill aides. One positive aspect is lawmakers are “hiring someone who is savvy in the ways of Washington.”
“As we can see from many ethics cases, the chief of staff really sets the tone for what goes on in that office. … That is probably the most critical hire,” McGehee said.
But for a new lawmaker, hiring a lobbyist as an aide can also raise the potential for a conflict of interest between his or her former clients and the lawmaker’s agenda.
“As a chief of staff to a new member of Congress, you could do something to really help them,” McGehee said. “You have to be very careful not to do private bidding in public office.”
The ethics watchdog recommends that new congressional offices establish a written policy whereby former lobbyists share their client lists with lawmakers. McGeehe also says former lobbyists should recuse themselves from any issues involving those clients.
Some of the congressional hires already seem to be following McGehee’s advice.
Burgeson said that as Dold’s chief of staff, he would abstain from working on “matters of substance” involving former clients.
“Regarding working with former clients, it will be policy that staffers (including myself) may not work on matters of substance with former clients, and all substantive inquiries from former clients must be referred to a non-affiliated staff member for consideration,” Burgeson said in an e-mail to The Hill.
According to lobbying disclosure records, Burgeson’s lobbying clients included the American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China, Southern Company Services and the enriched-uranium supplier USEC, among others.
Tim Harris, the future chief of staff to Rep.-elect Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), said he was “comfortable” in not being allowed to communicate with his former client.
“There is a lot of conversations with the congressman that we will have,” Harris said. “So if that’s a policy we feel we need to put into place, I’m comfortable with that.”
Harris and Stutzman served together in the Indiana state legislature. Harris will give up his job as executive director of the Indiana Utility Shareholders Association to join Stutzman’s team.
Harris does not consider himself at risk of a conflict of interest due to the nature of his trade group.
“I lobbied for one small association. We didn’t have a PAC. Our style of lobbying has been pretty laid-back,” Harris said.
Stokes said Lee’s position on pet projects will make it easy for him to avoid any conflicts of interest while working in the Senate. His federal lobbying work was finding federal funds for a Utah state university and a county government.
“Our stated policy is we are not going to be asking for earmarks, so that makes it pretty clear-cut on how I am going to deal with former clients,” Stokes said.