Congress' revolving door turns to K St.

The revolving door between Congress and K Street is beginning to turn again.

Some former lobbyists who left the influence industry last year to work as aides on Capitol Hill are already back on K Street. Others are coming to lobby shops for the first time, some from the offices of freshman members elected in 2010.

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Blair Bennett, a client partner at Korn/Ferry International, said staffers cycle between Capitol Hill and K Street because “politics run through their blood,” though the work for lawmakers is also an important way to “refresh contacts.”

“Especially when you have a large freshman class coming in, it’s good to go and refresh your contacts,” Bennett said. “I think people that have been around town long enough know that their value is in their relationships, partly.”

Among the staffers who have returned to their lobbying careers after a stint on Capitol Hill are Jim Barnette, Sarah Beatty and Anne Steckel.

Barnette served as the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s general counsel. He worked for Steptoe & Johnson before moving to the committee. Barnette has since rejoined the firm and registered to lobby for big-name clients like Facebook and Fluor Corp.

Beatty lobbied for the American College of Cardiology prior to serving Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) as chief of staff. Now she is registered to lobby for Wal-Mart.

And Steckel left Growth Energy to serve Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) as chief of staff. She now works as a lobbyist for the National Biodiesel Board.

Staffers for freshman members of Congress who have made the switch to K Street include Erskine Wells.

According to salary information provided by LegiStorm, Wells served as chief of staff to Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), later serving as deputy chief of staff to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and now works for BGR Group as a lobbyist. Wells’s clientele includes the Consumer Electronics Association and Chevron.

David Lasseter left the office of Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) where he was chief of staff, and is a registered lobbyist for United Technologies Corporation.

Several requests for comment to the lobbyists were not answered.

“Cooling-off” lobbying restrictions only apply to senior congressional aides who make 75 percent or more of the rate of pay for a House member or a senator. Senior House staff can’t lobby their former offices for a year, while senior Senate staff can’t lobby all of the Senate for a year.

Steckel is listed in the House clerk’s post-employment notifications database. Her cooling-off period ends Aug. 5, according to congressional records. 

Staff for lawmakers considered close to the Tea Party might find it harder to transition to K Street with their no-compromise reputation, said Chris Jones, managing partner of CapitolWorks. Those aides might not have “the ability to work with, meet and talk to both sides in Congress,” he said.

“In the galaxy of Republican leadership, the Tea Party stars are not yet charted primarily because they’re so new and, as of yet, don’t have a sense of the compromising nature of the legislative process,” Jones said, emphasizing that members are learning quickly.

“You want someone also who is well-respected enough in Republican and Democratic circles that as a staffer that they are going to be able to put in a call and folks are not going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this fellow or young lady was so far right that we don’t even want to meet with them to discuss their new issue.’ To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, extremism in the defense of liberty is a vice in the lobbying world.”

Corporate headhunters said lobby firms are not embarking on a hiring spree, and are taking a “wait and see” approach to observe what happens in Congress and, most importantly, in the November election.  

“The uncertainty would disturb any market. There’s much more ‘wait and see’ before investing in any capital,” said Larry Latourette, executive director of the partner practice at Lateral Link. “You can get egg on your face, especially if you get an expensive hire that turns out to be on the wrong side of the aisle.”

GOP Senate aides were considered a valuable commodity on K Street some months ago, but their value has dropped now that the battle for the Senate is considered a toss-up.

“The likelihood of a triumph in the Senate by the GOP is less than it was several months ago,” Latourette said. “The futures market has adjusted accordingly.” 

  Ivan Adler, a principal at the McCormick Group, said he doesn’t think Senate GOP staffers’ value has gone down. Hiring is down across all sectors, he said, because of inaction in Congress.  

Ivan Adler, a principal at McCormick Group, said he doesn’t think Senate GOP staffers’ value has declined. Hiring is down across all sectors, he said, because of inaction in Congress.

“I think the biggest factor affecting hiring is nothing is happening. If you hire them, what are they going to do?” Adler said. “[Staffers] are staying because there is a lack of need.”

Adler also said it’s difficult for firms to hire former congressional aides who can’t bring a book of business in during tough economic times. He predicted the bubbling corporate tax reform debate would at least bring an increase in hires from the congressional tax committees.

“They are walking into a firm with no business. There has to be a really good reason to hire them. They either are a magnet for business, a star attraction or they have a proclivity to sell,” Adler said. “You are going to see tax people leave. A firm will want to say, ‘We got the counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee.’ But that’s going to be more the exception than the rule.” 

Julian Ha, head of the government affairs practice at Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm, said he has had several discussions with clients “where they are saying, ‘Why don’t we wait until November?’ 

“Hopefully, we will all be even busier in December and January,” said Ha, predicting a possible uptick in hiring after the election.