Ex-lawmakers on K St. bristle at pension bills

Ex-lawmakers on K St. bristle at pension bills

Ex-members of Congress who have moved to K Street are bristling at a pair of bipartisan bills seeking to strip them of their taxpayer-funded federal pensions.

The Hill reached out to three dozen former lawmakers — most are now registered lobbyists — and asked for their thoughts about the proposal.

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Seven agreed to talk, and those that did railed against the bills, describing them with words like “self-righteous,” “disappointing” and “unconstitutional.”

“Former members of congress have earned their retirement benefits and any thought of denying them their retirement benefits ... it’s just uncalled for,” said former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.).

Others, including former Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), dismissed them outright.

“That’s just a message bill,” said Gordon, now a partner at K&L Gates. “I don’t have any reaction.”

One of the bills, introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), would make any former member or former congressional staffer who becomes a registered lobbyist ineligible for certain federal benefits, including pensions.

Rep. Steve Israel  (D-N.Y.) penned the Revolving Door Pension Prevention Act, which would ban the collection of benefits only if a former member makes $1 million or more from providing services as a lobbyist.

Neither has picked up a co-sponsor to date.

After leaving Capitol Hill, the amount of a congressional pension varies based upon how many years the lawmaker served and may not exceed 80 percent of his or her final year’s salary, among other stipulations. 

Watchdogs have long decried the “revolving door” between the government and the advocacy world, which they say undermines public service by allowing individuals to cash out and use their Rolodex in the private sector.

Jobs at lobby firms can pay in the upper-six-figures for former members, but trade associations sometimes offer higher salaries.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) made $3.3 million in 2012 as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America; he declined to speak for this article.

Yet critics say they are ill-conceived efforts to satisfy an electorate that holds contempt for Washington.

“Current members think they’re going to satisfy the beast by throwing this kind of red meat, and it doesn’t work,” said Slattery. “Some ill-informed members of Congress believe they can blame lobbyists for their poor standing in the public. That’s a joke. The only way they’re going to improve their standing in the eyes of the public is to do their job better.”

Critics of the legislation also argue that it may be contested on constitutional grounds. Many point out that lobbying, or the right to petition the government, is protected by the First Amendment.

“It sounds like it would be a prime candidate for a challenge in the Supreme Court,” said James Hickey, the president of the Association of Government Relations Professionals. “Why would you pick out one profession and say, ‘You can do anything you want [after leaving Congress] except this one.”

Lobbyists make easy targets for policymakers and government officials, while memories of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist imprisoned for his role in corrupting members and aides, remain fresh.

“Some members of Congress have tried to blame lobbyists for their decisions. Whenever I hear something like that I want to just vomit. What a cowardly answer,” said Slattery, now a partner at Wiley Rein.

Tim LaPira, a professor at James Madison University who studies lobbying, said that measures like these could create even more “shadow lobbyists,” who practice advocacy work but do not register. He has instead called for reforms to lobbying rules.

“For Congress to really take seriously lobbying transparency, unfortunately what’s going to have to happen is another Abramoff scandal that puts their jobs at risk,” he said. “Outside of that, they have very little incentive to change how lobbyists actually operate.”

Former members are required to have a one-year “cooling off” period before they can register to lobby before their ex-colleagues. Senators must wait two years.

“If they’re concerned about it — that we have too much influence — extend the cooling off period,” said former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a partner at Venable.

An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on Monday advocated for extending the lobbying prohibition period six years.

“A six-year wait would significantly weaken their connections and diminish their earning power as lobbyists. And that would reduce the temptation to treat public service as a trial job period, acting on behalf of a future boss rather than the constituents,” wrote University of Arizona professor Suzanne Dovi.

Recently retired Rep. Jim MoranJim MoranTrump can help farmers by improving two-way trade with Cuba Former GOP House veterans panel chairman goes to K Street Former reps: Increase support to Ukraine to deter Russia MORE (D-Va.), who went to work for McDermott Will & Emery as a senior legislative adviser last month, told The Hill he would “probably” become a lobbyist after the one-year ban expires.

He plans to work on causes he fought for as a legislator, including the environment, clean energy policy and “fairer treatment for Native American tribes,” among other issues.

He was among those denouncing the pension bills as unfairly targeting a worthwhile profession.

“It’s the self-righteous stuff that is disappointing because many members have gone on to a legislative career to advocate for things they really care about.”