K Street’s freshmen shun lobbyist tag

More than a dozen of the lawmakers from the 111th Congress who retired or were defeated last year have already found new jobs at law and lobbying firms. Yet many told The Hill that they have no plans to register as lobbyists. 

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“You don’t say never, but certainly I have no intention of doing so,” said former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah). “I am much more comfortable, at my age, letting the younger people run up on the Hill, and I will do policy advising.”

But the aversion to registering as a lobbyist doesn’t mean that Bennett and others won’t play an influential role on K Street. Many former members, working as advisers and consultants at their new firms, will work on campaigns to influence Congress. 

Not registering as a lobbyist has distinct advantages for former lawmakers. It allows them a chance to escape the stigma attached to moving from Congress to advocacy, and they are not required to disclose their client list to the public. 

“They can’t be the ones making the sales pitch or twisting the arm. But what they can do is advise others on strategy — how to actually coordinate a lobbying effort, what to say, who to talk to, what issues they care about,” said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics. “Lobby firms wouldn’t be spending the money to hire these former members of Congress unless they had some intrinsic value.”

Bennett is now a senior policy adviser at Arent Fox, a law firm that also has a lobbying practice. The longtime Utah senator said he wanted to remain active in public policy, and has started the Bennett Consulting Group to continue work in that vein.

“My desire was to be involved in policy, but on my own time and not on a time schedule controlled by [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.],” Bennett said.

Ex-lawmakers are highly prized for their expertise and connections. Experienced former House members are being offered annual salaries starting at around $500,000, while ex-senators might earn $1 million or more in their first year, according to several headhunters who recruit for law and lobby firms. 

“Members’ marketability is dictated by their seniority, their area of interest and their reputation in this town as either a show-horse or a workhorse,” said Chris Jones, managing partner of CapitolWorks.

The Center for Responsive Politics and another watchdog group, Remapping Debate, are deploying a database to track the career moves of lawmakers who have left Congress.

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At least 36 of the roughly 100 lawmakers who lost their reelection or retired last year have found new employment since leaving Capitol Hill. They have found jobs on corporate boards and in government and academia, as well as on K Street. 

Of the approximate dozen who have headed to law and lobbying firms, only one ex-lawmaker told The Hill that he would register as a lobbyist. Former Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who ran and lost against Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), said he would likely register once his cooling-off period ends. Until then, he will avoid lobbying.

“I have told the staff, ‘Don’t come to me and ask me to do something backdoor,’ because I don’t want to violate the ethics rules,” said Melancon, now senior vice president of government relations and public policy at the International Franchise Association (IFA). “I don’t want to give myself or the IFA a black eye.”

Under the 2007 ethics law, ex-House members cannot lobby either chamber of Congress for one year after leaving. For former senators, the ban is two years.

Because of that cooling-off period, former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) has said to his ex-colleagues, “See you in a year.”

“It’s really intimidating,” Pomeroy, now senior counsel at Alston & Bird, said about the ban. “Even on a social basis, I’m going to be very careful.”

Pomeroy said he wasn’t certain he would register as a lobbyist in the future, but wouldn’t rule it out.

“It depends on the work,” Pomeroy said. “I have not done anything that would require me to run up there and talk to someone yet. It has been a lot of strategic work, trying to solve problems.”

Former Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) said he would never lobby, but wouldn’t have time even if he desired to because of the two-year cooling-off period. 

“I’m an attorney, and I’m looking toward public service in the future. In more than two years, I will likely be looking at public service again,” said LeMieux, now chairman of the board at Gunster.

Other former members said they won’t lobby because they are returning to a former line of work: litigation. Both former Reps. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), now a partner at Fox Rothschild, and Artur Davis (D-Ala.), now a partner at SNR Denton, were prosecutors before coming to Congress.

Murphy left Washington to head back to his home state. He appreciates the half-hour commute to work and going to his daughter’s first ice-skating lesson. 

“My first priority was to go home and be with my family in Pennsylvania and help raise two little kids,” Murphy said. 

Several lawmakers rejected criticism of the revolving door between Congress and K Street, stressing their passion for public policy and their need for employment. Melancon said he wanted to return to Louisiana, but job offers were only coming from lobby trade groups in Washington.

“That’s where I want to be. But I have to have meaningful employment. Period,” Melancon said.

Bennett said Washington “is probably the only place I know that you get punished for acquiring expertise.”

“This whole myth that just because you served in the Congress gives you this magic ability to sway the republic is naïve,” Bennett said.