Retiring lawmakers may be tempted to take big job openings on K Street

Lawmakers retiring this year have little reason to fret the job market: Some of K Street's biggest players have top openings with seven-figure salaries or the chance to rub elbows with Hollywood stars.

The growing list of members who have decided not to seek reelection, combined with top-notch job opportunities, will only further the trend of ex-lawmakers lobbying for interests they once oversaw.

ADVERTISEMENT
That’s troubling to some government watchdogs who see members cashing in on their public service as part of the revolving door of Washington. Others say former lawmakers should have the same rights to these jobs as anyone else.

At least four major trade associations are looking to hire for their high-profile jobs, each of which could command a salary in excess of $1 million a year.

One of the biggest opportunities came Thursay when former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin announced his resignation from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA).

Tauzin, a collegial dealmaker who entered Congress as a Democrat and left as a Republican, is resigning from a job that paid him a total compensation package in excess of $2 million a year, according to the association’s 2007 tax records.

Another opening drawing interest is the president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), one of the more glamorous positions in town.

Its longtime head Jack Valenti was a fixture on Oscar night and maintained as high a profile as some actors. Current president and CEO Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas, is leaving in April to become president of Refugees International.

“These are like playing for the Yankees or the Red Sox. They pay very well, are very high profile. But they are not easy,” said Ivan Adler, a headhunter for McCormick Group.

The heads of PhRMA and MPAA not only have to manage their relationships with members, but deal with aggressive and often ego-driven CEOs of large companies who hold various opinions on politics.

Retiring Democrats like Sens. Christopher Dodd (Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.), and Reps. John Tanner and Bart Gordon, both of Tennessee, are names mentioned as possible hot prospects downtown.

“The demand for high-profile Democrats in this town is still pretty high,” Adler said.

A few of the job openings offer second- and third-home salaries, and will likely command interest from retiring and sitting members alike.

The American Council of Life Insurers is searching for a replacement for Frank Keating, a former Republican governor of Oklahoma who has announced he is stepping down. His contract expires in 2011.

Keating earned nearly $3 million in total and deferred compensation, according to 2008 tax records.

The Credit Union National Association for years has been directed by former Democratic congressman Dan Mica of Florida. But Mica is leaving the group next year.

Mica earned $1.8 million in total compensation in 2008, according to tax records.

The Beer Institute is looking to replace its popular president, Jeff Becker, who died after a battle with cancer in January.

The Beer Institute doesn’t command the type of salaries as some other groups, but comes with a variety of perks, like tickets to beer-sponsored sporting events.

The Security Industry Association is also looking to fill its top spot.

The reversal in political fortunes for Republicans, who are on a winning streak at the polls, is already translating to better prospects on K Street, giving new hope to retiring GOPers.

The Democratic-heavy Glover Park Group recently hired Brian Gaston, a former House Republican leadership aide, as a managing director. A number of other former Republican staffers have also opened up their own lobbying operations, emboldened by their party’s resurgence.

Trade associations, which represent competitors in many cases, often prefer to hire former lawmakers who have a reputation of crossing the aisle. The National Association of Broadcasters hired former Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican from Oregon known as a centrist.

“Given the current political dynamics, obviously groups are leaning toward Democrats. But they want to make sure they can find somebody who can represent their members in a bipartisan way,” said Nels Olsen, a headhunter at Korn/Ferry.

The open positions will likely continue a trend of senior aides and former lawmakers who trade their experience on Capitol Hill for more secure financial futures.

Public Citizen, a watchdog group, reported that 43 percent of members who left Congress between 1998 and 2004 became registered lobbyists, a figure that does not include political consultants who don’t register.

“It appears to be a constant, continuing trend,” said Craig Holman, a legislative representative of Public Citizen. Former administration officials also move to K Street. Holman said that 26 percent of ex-Bush administration officials now lobby.

He called the revolving door an “awful” problem.

“They have special connections and networks that others don’t have and are literally cashing in on their public service,” Holman said.

But former lawmakers say there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to lobby, and that ethics rules help prevent conflicts of interests.

Despite the high-profile and legislative experience of ex-members, they aren’t automatically the leading candidates for open positions.

Trade groups, companies and lobbying firms take a look at retiring members. But they don’t necessarily have a leg up on their competition. Although Tauzin resigned after a controversial year in which he struck an $80 billion accord with the White House on healthcare, angering some of his former Republican colleagues, his tenure at PhRMA is generally considered a success.

Other ex-members have done less well.

“At the end of the day, it’s more about who can get results,” Olsen said.

— This article was updated at 9:44 a.m.