Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups

Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups
© Greg Nash

Retiring lawmakers could find it harder than ever to find a job at trade groups next year.

Headhunters who specialize in finding candidates for high-level K Street jobs told The Hill industry groups are no longer clamoring for the cachet of hiring a former elected official.

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Instead, they say hiring trends have changed and high-powered groups are looking for people with management skills, policy knowledge and industry smarts.

“When we do these [trade] association searches now, no one says, ‘My first choice is
a former House member, governor or senator,’ ” said Julian Ha, who leads the government affairs and trade association practices at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

“It used to be ... get a name, someone who could throw their weight around and get calls returned.”

Snagging a marquee name two decades ago may have been the ideal choice for some groups, but Ha and others say that political gridlock in Washington and the expanded work of trade associations has ushered in the need for candidates with a larger skill set.

“Now you need a combination of strategies; you need someone with the connections and someone who could create a strategy and then lead a team to execute that against that comprehensive advocacy plan,” Ha said.

Dozens of lawmakers will be hitting the streets looking for a job next year. More than 50 members of Congress are not returning to Capitol Hill in 2019 — including nearly a dozen high-profile committee leaders.

Trade groups have long been a natural next step for many lawmakers. More than 50 percent of all retiring lawmakers end up in the advocacy industry, according to various studies by watchdogs and academics in recent years, primarily at multiclient lobbying and public affairs firms.

But more than 20 former members or governors have been hired as trade group chief executives over the last two decades, with influential organizations like the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Business Roundtable, the Financial
Services Roundtable and telecommunications group CTIA choosing to hire former elected officials to fill the top role. 

Former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who led the House Energy and Commerce Committee, went on to be chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. He now has his own lobbying firm, Tauzin Consultants.

Ex-Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association. He also did a stint under former President George W. Bush as Office of Management and Budget director. Former GOP Rep. James Greenwood (Pa.) leads the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

A few lawmakers who retired in 2018 have gone on to K Street or advocacy roles, including former GOP Reps. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdFormer aides alleging sexual harassment on Capitol Hill urge congressional action AP Analysis: 25 state lawmakers running in 2018 have been accused of sexual misconduct Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups MORE (Texas) and Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentGOP House candidate placed on leave from longtime position after sexual misconduct allegation Election handicapper moves GOP leader's race to 'toss-up' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Pa.). Farenthold ended up as a lobbyist for the Calhoun Port Authority in Texas, while  Dent went to work for law and lobbying firm DLA Piper. 

Former Rep. Pat TiberiPatrick (Pat) Joseph TiberiAP: Balderson wins hotly contested Ohio special election House Dems to invest in South Carolina race Ohio Dem candidate knocks Trump: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about MORE (R-Ohio) is the first of the 2018 retiring class to take a trade association role. He joined the Ohio Business Roundtable last year in the heat of the
tax-reform effort. 

Headhunters say that chief executives must still be able to explain the inner workings of Washington — shepherding association members through legislative and regulatory processes. But they are also looking for CEOs who can handle other tasks.

“Today, the board expects a CEO to bring operational efficiencies to the trade association, leverage technology and the digital arena, all while understanding the challenges that members are facing every day in their businesses as a result of tariffs, increased regulations, #MeToo, and other current events,” Stephanie Tomasso, head of the trade and professional associations practice for executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, told The Hill in an email.

With trade associations growing in size and their CEOs taking on greater responsibilities, boards want more from their leaders.

“What’s really changing is ... associations are bigger and there’s more money involved than has ever been involved. Therefore, they’re looking for people that have more of a business mindset and can do things in that way,” said Ivan Adler, a principal at the McCormick Group, an executive-search firm.

More money than ever is being spent on advocacy, and member dues are also getting higher in some cases, Adler said.

“The costs of failure are so high today at these associations,” he adds, “and they’re looking for, frankly, more.”

In industry groups’ most recent CEO hires, former high-level staffers, longtime lobbyists with government service experience and those who have served in executive roles before have ultimately been selected by industry groups.

Earlier this year, when the American Petroleum Institute needed a new chief executive — one of the most coveted and highest-paying gigs on K Street — it went with a longtime top congressional aide for former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBlue wave poses governing risks for Dems Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE (R-Ohio), rather than a high-profile retiring lawmaker. 

That aide, Mike Sommers, had led the American Investment Council (AIC) for about two years before that, an organization he joined after BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBlue wave poses governing risks for Dems Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE’s retirement in 2015. AIC has replaced him with Drew Maloney, a top official from the Treasury Department with strong K Street credentials.

After former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) announced he would be stepping down as chief executive of the American Council of Life Insurers this year, the group brought on longtime American Beverage Association CEO Susan Neely to take the reins.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association is replacing its outgoing leader with Geoff Freeman, who leads the American Gaming Association.

“If you hire a former staffer with a great deal of experience, they have climbed the ladder. They know what it’s like to not be the top person, and they’re comfortable with that,” said Tim LaPira, a professor at James Madison University who specializes in the revolving door between government and the private sector. 

“Former members come with an ego. They were the principal — always,” he added, acknowledging that some former members fit well in the roles.

All of the headhunters who spoke with The Hill emphasized that many lawmakers still have the qualifications that trade groups’ hiring committees are looking for and still pop up as chief executive candidates. 

One factor is the performance of some past elected officials.

Some headhunters worried that some former lawmakers have taken cushy CEO titles expecting seven-figure paychecks but then not always done their best in the posts.

“Unfortunately, some previous former member hires have perhaps not performed as well, and so for every Cal Dooley or Dave McCurdy, who were very effective, there are others who have not,” said Ha.

Former Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) helms the American Gas Association. And former Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) had two successful stints, first at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and then at the American Chemistry Council (ACC). He announced his retirement from ACC earlier this year.

For lawmakers now, Ha said, “the bar is higher.”