Lobbying World

Will Cantor register as a lobbyist?

News that former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) accepted a new job at the investment bank Moelis was met with much grousing. While it is not altogether clear what Cantor will be doing in his new job, he wasn’t hired for his background in banking. Rumors that he will earn in the neighborhood of $3.4 million a year only poked at the grousers’ open wounds. Chris Matthews described the move in Fortune as “outrageous” and evidence of “money grubbing and naked self-interest,” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called it “selling access.”

All of these claims may be true, but how unusual is Cantor’s move? How often do members of Congress and others in government circle through the revolving door to influencing federal policymaking from the outside as lobbyists?

{mosads}Like many simple questions, the answer is surprisingly hard to find. For one, defining what former officials do is murky at best. Some lobby after the year-long cooling off period, but federal regulations —contained in the famed Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) — provide numerous loopholes, including the one former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) stepped through in 2005. If you merely advise on policy strategy or don’t directly engage in influencing the legislative process, you may look and sound like a lobbyist, but you don’t have to register as one.

To help wade through the murk, Tim LaPira, associate professor at James Madison University, and Herschel Thomas, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, did the hard work of coding and counting. They examined a random sample of Washington policy advocates, including registered lobbyists and unregistered “advocates.” The sample is highly representative of the vast array of those involved in every issue from pharmaceutical regulations to budgetary policy. They then researched the professional backgrounds of each and mapped who registers to lobby and who doesn’t.

They found that a quarter (26.4 percent) of their sample of policy advocates had never registered as lobbyists, but were involved in the policy process. Daschle and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) famously fall into this category. But a majority (51 percent) could be classified as lobbyist: a third (37 percent) were actively registered as lobbyists and a sixth (14.2 percent) had been registered as lobbyists at one point. The remainder were either currently employed by the government or primarily involved in electoral politics.

Based on this random sample, LaPira and Thomas estimate that there are around 8,500 unregistered advocates in Washington and nearly 12,000 active lobbyists. What this suggests is that there are over two and a half policy advocates for every one employee of Congress and nearly 40 per elected member of Congress. (For other data on the revolving door, see the Sunlight Foundation website.)

LaPira and Thomas also found that most registered lobbyists had travelled through the revolving door in the past. A majority (60 percent) of those registered lobbyists that they studied had previously held a job in government and nearly two-thirds of former congressional employees in the study had registered to lobby. It is also much more common for those leaving the White House to remain unregistered and influence policy as policy advocates than those leaving Congress.

It remains to be seen what Cantor will be doing for Moelis and whether he ultimately registers to lobby. For those who are now incensed by his new job, if Cantor pursues the LDA loophole and remains unregistered, I will share in their concerns. The LDA provides one of the few methods for the public to track the business of influence in Washington. Transparency policies will only work if public servants support these aims while in office and also long after they leave. Failing to do so will further undermine the already dismal public confidence and trust in the institutions of Washington.

Brown is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is the author of Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition (Routledge, 2012).

Tags Elizabeth Warren Eric Cantor LDA Lobbying Lobbying Disclosure Act Moelis Newt Gingrich Revolving door Tom Daschle
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