K Street headhunters enamored with upcoming class of retiring lawmakers

Corporate headhunters are sizing up the K Street prospects of the retiring members of the 112th Congress — and they like what they see.

Twenty-five representatives and senators so far have announced they will retire from Capitol Hill after this year’s election. Executives who work to place ex-lawmakers at law firms, lobby shops and corporate boards are monitoring the outgoing lawmakers and discussing who could go where — and how much they would earn.

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“We are doing a mock draft with some of our clients,” Ivan Adler, a principal with the McCormick Group, told The Hill.

The retiring class includes lawmakers who are known for their bipartisan ties, and others who have spent decades on Capitol Hill accruing seniority on powerful committees. That mix of attributes has many on K Street licking their chops. 

“As a retiring class goes, this is a very valuable class. A lot of these members are marketable and will be welcomed by K Street with open arms,” Adler said, noting that committee experience will be key.

“More than the actual members retiring, it’s the committees they’re retiring from.”

Among the prized recruits: Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), minority whip and a member of the Finance Committee; and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee on Commodities, Markets, Trade and Risk Management.

Looking to 2013, headhunters said an ex-Republican senator would likely receive the biggest offers from law and lobbying firms. The least-compensated would likely be a former House Democrat, they said.

Former senators could expect to earn somewhere between $800,000 and $1.5 million in annual salary next year at lobby firms, while ex-House members could earn between $300,000 and $600,000, headhunters estimated. They predicted ex-Republican lawmakers would draw bigger salaries than retiring Democrats.

“It’s a good class, if not a great class, if certain things happen. It’s like wine,” said Larry Latourette, president of Veritas Lex, a headhunting firm that looks to place lawyers and lobbyists at firms.

Those “certain things” are the Democrats regaining control of the House in November while keeping a majority in the Senate. With the bulk of the retirements coming so far from the blue side of the aisle, their value on K Street would soar if Democrats ran both chambers of Congress.

Latourette said retiring GOP lawmakers are safe bets for lobby shops, while Democrats could be high-risk, high-reward.

“Republicans are bonds. Dems are the options you play with the last 20 percent of your money,” Latourette said.

Several headhunters said lawmakers are typically averse to registering as lobbyists, preferring instead to become senior advisers who consult and strategize on how to lobby. Rarely do they wish to advocate face to face with their former colleagues.

“No one wants to be Abramoff,” Latourette said, referring to the once-jailed lobbyist whose tactics became infamous. “There is a definite stigma associated with it, which is being identified as a lobbyist.”

But even without traditional shoe-leather lobbying, ex-lawmakers will be highly prized by K Street.

Julian Ha, who leads the government affairs practice at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, said Kyl and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) would be top targets.

“They have got star power and brand-name recognition, so if they wanted to move down the street to K Street, I’m sure they would find a home,” Ha said.

One retiring lawmaker who would break that mold would be Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Headhunters said Frank, the co-author of the Wall Street reform bill and former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has every tool needed to be a great lobbyist, coupled with a brand-name persona.

“Barney Frank can do anything he wants. He could teach. He could sit on some boards. He could be a senior adviser, a la Tom Daschle,” said Chris Jones, president of CapitolWorks, another headhunting firm.

There’s only one problem: Frank has “no interest whatsoever” in joining K Street.

“I was aware that I would be able to make a lot of money lobbying, but I wouldn’t enjoy it,” Frank told The Hill. “I want to write. I really have things I would like to say, and it’s nothing I have ever had an interest in doing.”

The Massachusetts Democrat said the lecture circuit might be one route for him.

“I want do some serious thinking and writing, but I can’t do that if I’m distracted,” Frank said. “I intend to give lectures for which I will get paid. There is a bit of a market there and I’m told I will do well there, but I want to do some serious writing.”

Lobby firms would love to have him if he changes his mind.

“Absolutely, but that’s not going to happen,” said Robert Raben, president of the Raben Group and a former Frank aide. “He’s just not that into you. It’s not his goal to be paid for this.”

Lobbyists and congressional aides said it’s still too soon for lawmakers to decide what their next move will be. An aide to retiring Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the lawmaker has only just started thinking about his future.

“Congressman Lewis has just begun the process of deciding what he will do once he retires beginning next January. He expects any plans to take shape much later in the year,” said Jim Specht, a spokesman for Lewis.

A Republican lobbyist close to Lewis said there are “hundreds of options” available to the lawmaker. 

“I feel certain, [as with] his decision to retire from public service, he will take all the time he needs to figure out what he wants to do next,” the lobbyist said.