... as campaign consultants feel heat

If anything is certain about the ultimate outcome of the sordid Jack Abramoff scandal, it’s that there will be a flurry of proposals for new regulations on lobbyists and lobbying.

If anything is certain about the ultimate outcome of the sordid Jack Abramoff scandal, it’s that there will be a flurry of proposals for new regulations on lobbyists and lobbying.

Some of these proposals will doubtless broaden lobbying regulations to cover campaign consultants. I can imagine that someone will propose making consultants register and then disclose all client relationships. Some reformers may go as far as proposing that anyone working for a candidate as a campaign consultant cannot play any lobbying role for some period of time thereafter, broadening the same sort of “revolving door” restriction already applied to congressional employees.

Controversies regarding consultants becoming lobbyists are nothing new. I can recall reading critiques of the practice of “electing them and then lobbying them” as early as 1984. One academician, James Thurber of American University, has studied this phenomenon and estimates that about one-half of America’s 8,000 professional campaign consultants do some lobbying. Based on my own informal observations of the profession, that figure seems high to me, but Professor Thurber has systematic survey data to bolster his conclusion, so I’ll accept it.

Various reasons have been offered by academics for campaign consultants’ moving toward lobbying. Most of these explanations involve money. Consultants need to smooth out their income flow over the 24-month election cycle, so you elect a candidate in the even year and then lobby him or her in the odd year.

Consultants also need to have work for their valued younger staffers to do between elections. So when campaign consultants hear about the high fees being paid to lobbyists, many naturally seek some lobby assignments.

Academics have also suggested that consultants become lobbyists for more altruistic reasons. After getting to know a candidate and his or her interests better during the course of a campaign, consultants may feel a sense of loyalty and obligation that provokes them to register as a lobbyist so that they can make certain that the officeholders they elected are given sound and candid advice. Friends help friends

Money and friendship are undoubtedly important considerations, but I believe that many campaign consultants have migrated to lobbying for other reasons. For some campaign advisers, lobbying offers an opportunity to live a normal adult existence. Campaigning is largely a young person’s game. You are traveling constantly, working around the clock and not being much of a spouse or father. So some grown-up consultants are looking for a more regulated existence where you can work seminormal hours and sleep in your own bed. This is why so many consultants start their professions out in one of the states but eventually move to D.C. They are seeking some semblance of normalcy in their lives.

In the past, the transition from consultant to lobbyist was being made mostly by mature campaigners who had well-formed professional norms and values. Furthermore, they had made enough money as consultants that they weren’t going to lunge at just any lobbying arrangement. Their norms and checking-account balances gave them the freedom to look for comfortable lobbying engagements that didn’t compromise their values. Lately, though, we see a lot of younger campaign consultants who can’t wait to grab a big check. And these checks will be offered.

After the last election, a liberal special-interest group — one that had never contacted me before — sought to hire me to conduct a poll on a legislative proposal coming before Congress. They knew I had just helped elect a United States senator who was thought to be a swing vote on this issue. I demurred, saying it wouldn’t be fair to the senator. The interest group readily accepted my explanation and went away. A younger, less-established pollster might not have been able to say no.

Instead of trying to pass laws forbidding this sort of dealing, I’d suggest that members of Congress ask their own consultants to sign agreements voluntarily that disclose lobbying and prohibit kickbacks and other unacceptable practices.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.