Ex-Tea Party lawmakers turn heads on K Street
A number of prominent former lawmakers associated with the Tea Party Caucus have joined the ranks of K Street in the last year, bringing their small government agendas to the lobbying world.
K Street has always been a favored perch for ex-lawmakers, but the recent moves from conservatives are attracting controversy, and coming even as President Trump and many Republicans vow to “drain the swamp.”
Among the big Republican names making the jump from Congress to K Street is Sean Duffy. The former Republican congressman from Wisconsin joined the lobbying firm BGR Group, a traditionally GOP-leaning firm, as a senior counsel in November and was named head of the financial services practice group. He was first elected in 2010 during the Tea Party wave and left Congress in September.
Former Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who retired from Congress after more than three decades of service, joined the highest-grossing lobbying firm, Akin Gump, in January 2019. He is a senior consultant in the public law and policy practice.
Another former Texas GOP congressman, John Culberson, joined Clark Hill’s government and public affairs practice in March. Culberson served for nearly two decades in Congress and lost his reelection bid in 2018.
Duffy, Smith and Culberson declined a request for comment.
The Tea Party Patriots Citizens, the political action committee that supports Tea Party members, did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.
Tea Party groups and Trump have long run on reining in the influence of special interests in Washington. And Tea Party lawmakers often clashed with the influence world and a number of prominent industries in high-profile fights.
In the Trump era, though, K Street has seen business grow as the Republican president’s agenda has sparked major battles over trade, health care and taxes. And despite Trump’s vows to challenge Washington, the revolving door between K Street and his administration has been busy.
For critics, that’s a sign that it is business as usual in the nation’s capital.
“Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ pledge was nothing but a catch phrase, versus the sincerity of the mantra of the Tea Party,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a watchdog group. “It’s unsurprising the members would change their tune after being here for some time.”
Out of the original 28 Tea Party Caucus members from the House in July 2010, three others are also registered lobbyists.
Ex-Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) has worked at Drinker Biddle since 2015, while former Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) has been a lobbyist for management consulting company APCO Worldwide since 2013. Another former lawmaker, ex-Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), in 2015 launched his own lobbying shop, Dan Burton International, and has one client, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.
Former Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is also looking to set up a lobbying shop, The Texas Observer recently reported.
Some defended the former lawmakers and noted that many Tea Party lawmakers had also gone on to different positions of influence in Washington: Vice President Pence and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were both in the caucus while serving in the House.
“If you ask [Duffy, Smith and Culberson], they would say this is not inconsistent because they are supporting issues where they have expertise and where they feel they are true believers,” Public Affairs Council President Doug Pinkham told The Hill.
The three lawmakers who went to K Street in the last year all boast years of experience in Congress.
Duffy has touted his work to help community banks as one of the successes of his congressional career, while Culberson worked on appropriations and defense issues and Smith was chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Pinkham pushed back on the idea that jumping to the lobbying world was inconsistent with the lawmakers’ work in Congress.
“I think members of Congress or staffers who go and work on K Street and are lobbying on issues and are paid for their expertise,” he said. “I think the ones who are successful in the long run are the ones who I think feel that what they’re doing is consistent with what they’ve always done.”
Lobbying is widely considered an easy and lucrative next step for lawmakers after Congress, and top firms actively recruit prominent and influential lawmakers from the Hill when retirements are announced.
For K Street critics, though, the moves highlight their larger concerns about the power and persistence of the influence industry.
“Think about what those members stood for when they came into office and how easily Washington can subvert those principals,” Gilbert, from Public Citizen, said.
Derek Martin, director of progressive advocacy group Allied Progress, said the movement of conservative former lawmakers to K Street was troubling.
“Tea Partiers claimed to care about deficits, too, until Trump embraced them. It’s no surprise they’ve also tossed aside their purported concerns with the revolving door once K Street started writing checks,” he told The Hill. “The unfortunate reality is that these former members may find success in advancing big industry agendas.”
But one headhunter said it was difficult for former lawmakers to ignore the draw of K Street, where they are valued for their experience and connections.
“The swamp is a myth just like the Loch Ness monster,” lobbying headhunter Ivan Adler told The Hill.
“What this proves is that it doesn’t matter what political philosophy you practice, if you are a member who has a reputation for working hard and have an issue specialty, you are valuable on K Street. Talent is talent, period, whether on K Street, Wall Street or Main Street.”
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