Ex-lawmakers face new scrutiny over lobbying

Lawmakers who head to K Street are facing new scrutiny from critics who say former members are often taking on lobbying work even when they don’t officially register to lobby.

The issue is getting new attention as 2020 Democrats step up their criticism of the lobbying world and with a number of former lawmakers making headlines.

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Critics say former lawmakers have been the biggest offenders when it comes to working in the influence world without formally registering.

“This is the easiest playbook in the world for former members who want the dollars from lobbying firms but not the scarlet letter that comes with lobbying jobs,” a former senior Senate staffer told The Hill.

Forty-eight former senators and 295 former representatives were registered lobbyists in the last Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That number is growing as the latest exiting class of lawmakers join firms.

The issue of former lawmakers in the influence world is in the spotlight after 2020 contender Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTim Ryan doesn't back impeachment proceedings against Trump Schiff: Democrats 'may' take up impeachment proceedings Trump claims Democrats' plans to probe admin will cost them 'big time' in 2020 MORE (D-Mass.) slammed ex-Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockGOP lawmaker introduces bill to stop revolving door Ex-lawmakers face new scrutiny over lobbying Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (R-Va.) after Comstock was named senior adviser in Baker Donelson’s Government Relations and Public Policy Group. Warren questioned on Twitter if Comstock will register to lobby “or bob & weave around the rules?”

Comstock fired back later, writing in a tweet: “Harvard [Institute of Politics] invited me to be a Fellow this semester to discuss civility in politics. Perhaps you were getting a beer and missed that class?”

Warren’s broadside comes as she makes running against K Street a centerpiece of her bid, drawing parallels with former President Obama’s 2008 campaign.

In her launch speech Saturday, Warren called for an end to “the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street” and “lobbying as we know it.”

She plans to reintroduce a bill that includes a lifetime ban on lobbying by former lawmakers, presidents and top executive branch appointees.

Warren’s campaign and Comstock did not respond to requests for comment.

Other former lawmakers have also attracted recent attention for their influence work when not registered.

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) faced criticism over work for the Chinese telecom company ZTE earlier this year. An ethics watchdog, the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, pressed him to register as a foreign agent. Lieberman initially said he would not be lobbying for the company, but in January registered as a lobbyist for ZTE.

K Street is a traditional landing pad for former lawmakers. Those who spoke to The Hill noted that many former elected officials are registered as lobbyists and respected by their colleagues. 

“First, there are some former members that are phenomenal advocates and that I would include at the top of this profession. [Ex-Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott and [former Gov.] Haley Barbour come to mind as two former elected officeholders who absolutely know how to lobby,” Alex Vogel, founder of The Vogel Group, told The Hill about the Mississippi Republicans. “And note — they are both registered.” 

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Another source mentioned ex-Democratic Sen. John Breaux (La.), also a registered lobbyist. Breaux has been a registered lobbyist since he left the Senate in 2005.

“I had no problems registering and saying I was going to represent clients,” Breaux told The Hill. “Any contact with members of Congress or the administration is considered lobbying, as I interpreted. Calling up to find out when the hearing is or anything as simple as that ... would require a person to register.”

Another prominent example is former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who was also majority leader. Daschle began working on K Street after leaving Congress in 2005 and formally registered in 2015.

The public fight between Warren and Comstock has divided many K Street watchers. Some note that the law has large loopholes for determining when someone must register.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act, enacted in 1995, states that a person must register to lobby if lobbying activities constitute at least 20 percent of their time working for a client. 

That allows many former members who work for lobbying shops and big firms to handle policy issues but avoid crossing the line to require registering as a lobbyist.

“There’s a difference between being paid to provide clients with insights and advice based on your experience and being paid to pick up the phone and make direct contacts with federal officials and advocate on behalf of clients,” a source who works on K Street told The Hill. “If you’re a former member who does the former but doesn’t do the latter, then you aren’t a lobbyist, and a title like ‘senior adviser’ or ‘strategic adviser’ may be perfectly appropriate.”

Some have come to Comstock’s defense, noting that before she served in Congress, Comstock was a registered lobbyist on behalf of the Motion Picture Association of America in 2005.

“I thought it was disrespectful and low ball of Warren to come after Comstock and also shows a lack of seriousness and sloppiness on Warren’s part. Why would you make this remark about a person who was a registered lobbyist before they were in Congress?” Vogel said. “That is exactly the wrong person to smack around on this.”

But others said the law’s loopholes forced former lawmakers to make difficult choices.

For many it is an “awkward dance,” said the former senior Senate staffer, adding that some lawmakers want to keep their “ability to consider public office again while sopping up a big lobbying paycheck in the process.”

Others said public perception of lobbyists also plays a role in deciding whether to register. Vogel believes former lawmakers are more likely to look for ways to avoid registering.

“I do think former members are more likely to look for ways not to register,” Vogel said. “Part of that is derived from a misguided belief that former members are ‘above’ being a lobbyist.”

“I never thought that registering was a bad symbol of what you’re doing. I always thought that it was a respected profession,” Breaux told The Hill, adding that there have been “bad apples” in lobbying.

One lobbyist said Democrats appeared “more hesitant to register because it hurts their reputation.” The progressive wing of the party, notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMichael Steele: A missed opportunity at holding banks accountable House Dem dismisses impeachment push: 'I'd rather defeat' Trump at ballot box Tlaib rallies in support of Green New Deal at Detroit town hall MORE (D-N.Y.), has been a vocal critic of special interests and corporate money.

But the lobbyist also said that former Democratic members often get “more slack” than Republicans for not registering, especially if they are seen as working on issues in the public interest.

Some said the trend of avoiding registering as a lobbyist began under Obama.

“This largely all started with Obama and their sort of lobbyist ban of hiring lobbyists,” an association executive told The Hill. “It caused people to revisit how they could not register, and people went into think tank world.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE has also contributed, the executive said.

“Trump has also made is sort of more difficult and painful for registered lobbyists because of the swamp draining aspect of it,” the executive said. “He compounded a problem that I think Obama started.”

Few think the issue is going away. Many former lawmakers who work as lobbyists aren’t ready to close the door on running for elected office again or in the administration.

The question of whether to formally register as a lobbyist, with all of the competing tensions, is a complicated choice for many.

“If former members want to get back into politics, they may want to keep their powder dry,” a lobbyist said.