Lobbyists decamp for Capitol Hill jobs

Lobbyists decamp for Capitol Hill jobs
© Hill file photo

Lobbyists are ditching their K Street gigs and taking big pay cuts for a chance to work on Capitol Hill under the all-Republican Congress.

Since Election Day, more than two-dozen have taken jobs as congressional aides, a move usually accompanied by worse hours and a lower salary — at least for a time, according to federal data.

Some maintain they are motivated by loyalty to a particular member or a chance to do public service.

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But for others, the move represents part of a long game — a chance to build potentially lucrative relationships with lawmakers and important staffers ahead of a future return to Washington’s influence industry.

Many of those lobbyists are returning to Capitol Hill offices and committees after stints in the private sector, and all but two have gone to work for Republicans.

“Revolvers are essentially selling their Rolodexes,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen.

“The revolving door process consists of spinning from the private sector into government, nurturing close insider relations with government officials and staff and then spinning back into the private sector charging much higher rates to employers and clients for access to those insider connections,” he said.

When contacted by The Hill, most of the individuals declined through spokespeople to comment for this story. But rules requiring incoming staffers to disclose previous private sector salary information if their new salary is above a certain threshold — typically about $121,000 — offer a rare window into lobbyist earnings, which are not usually public.

Among those making the cross-town trek in the current Congress was Charles Ingebretson. Formerly a vice president of energy and environmental policy at Boeing, Ingebretson became chief counsel at the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

At the aerospace giant, Ingebretson made $713,083 in 2014, according to the disclosures. House records put his congressional salary at $160,000 per year — a 78 percent decrease.

Jeff Shockey, who helped run S-3 Group before becoming the Republican staff director for the House Intelligence Committee, earned more than $1.2 million from his firm last year, disclosure forms say. He now makes $172,500 per year.

Sam Scales, who worked as an associate managing director at law firm Dentons, became the director of coalitions and member services on the House Natural Resources Committee. House disclosures put his current salary at $60,000 per year, which means he does not need to disclose his former pay.

Sean McLaughlin of the Podesta Group, who Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzFeinstein: Comey memos 'going to be turned over' Chaffetz: Congress should provide oversight on special counsel probe Cummings: 'There is an air of deception' in White House MORE (R-Utah) named as staff director for the House Oversight Committee, now makes more than $170,000 per year. Although his income triggers the disclosure requirement, his forms do not include how much he made at one of K Street’s most successful firms. Requests for that figure were not returned.

There are any number of reasons lobbyists may choose to take a Capitol Hill job, including the chance to update their resume or refresh contacts, said Ivan Adler, a K Street headhunter. In addition to policy, process and press, he says, “one of the four Ps in Washington is to know the people.”

“If you’re the first violin in the Buffalo Symphony, and you get a chance to be the first violin in the Philadelphia Symphony, that is something that you would do. And there’s nothing wrong with upgrading your career,” said Adler, a principal at the McCormick Group.

The chance to work for a new majority or within leadership is also an attractive incentive.

Hazen Marshall, who worked at K Street powerhouse Nickles Group — a firm run by former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) — earned $871,387 last year. Now working for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellBorder-adjustment tax proposal at death’s door McConnell on Trump: 'We could do with a little less drama' New CBO score triggers backlash MORE (R-Ky.), Marshall earns roughly $164,000, according to records kept by congressional tracking website LegiStorm.

Tim LaPira, an associate professor at James Madison University who studies lobbying, says that about half of all lobbyists have worked in the government at some level.

“I don’t see it, at an individual level, as some form of legal corruption. Usually it’s a logical, reasonable and personal professional choice,” he said.

Movement between government and the private sector is one way to “stay in the game,” he added, but “that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have systematic impacts on who gets represented on Washington, and who gets better representation in Washington.” 

Sometimes personal friendships drive a shift back into the public sector. Such was the case for former Democratic aide Stoney Burke, who became the chief of staff for GOP Rep. Will Hurd (Texas), Burke said.

“Will and I go back a long way,” Burke said in an emailed statement. “We met when I was in high school and we first worked side-by-side in student government at Texas A&M.”

Burke had also worked for former Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) from 2006 to 2008.

“Having grown up in west Texas, it’s an incredible opportunity to again work alongside my good friend and deal firsthand with the issues that impact the area I have always called home,” he said. 

At his post as a lobbyist at utility giant Southern Co., Burke earned about $258,678. He now makes roughly $133,000, according to LegiStorm.

Among the most prominent figures to make the transition was Mark Isakowitz, who traded a successful two-decade career in the lobbying industry for the lower pay and longer hours that come with being the top aide to a powerful GOP senator.

Disclosure reports show he cashed out a roughly $7 million stake in his firm, now called Fierce Government Relations. LegiStorm now pegs his current salary as Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanGOP senators bristle at Trump's Medicaid cuts Overnight Energy: Trump budget takes flak over oil provisions GOP senators knock Trump's budget proposal MORE’s (Ohio) chief of staff at about $162,000.

Isakowitz and Portman have long been friends, and when the senator’s former chief of staff decided to leave, the office tapped him to take the position.

“I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do public service again, and I always had it in the back of my mind that if Rob Portman asked me to do something that I would do it,” Isakowitz told The Hill in a phone call.

But why would he give up a seven-figure paycheck and a cushy K Street gig?

When he discussed the change with his wife, “her answer was, ‘why did we come to Washington in the first place?’” he said. “It was to do public service.”

Isakowitz said that returning to the private sector, in the long term, had not even crossed his mind.

“I feel lucky to be here,” he said. “I would like to do this for a long time.”