Anti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door'

Anti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door'
© Getty

An international anti-corruption group is hitting Congress for what it considers an ongoing failure to restrict the revolving door between K Street and Capitol Hill.

In a report released Wednesday, the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), an offshoot of the Council of Europe of which the United States is a participant, charged that while Congress has taken steps to restrict influence peddling by sitting lawmakers, it has failed to put similar restrictions on those who migrate to the lobbying world upon leaving office.

ADVERTISEMENT

"At a time when polls indicate all-time lows in government trust, the report stresses the need for passage of congressional rules to better manage 'revolving doors,' " the group said in a release.

Government watchdogs in Washington were quick to pile on, noting that Congress has not enacted any new restrictions on the revolving door since 2007, when it adopted the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) in direct response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal of several years earlier.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, said his group conducted a study a decade ago finding that 42 percent of House members, and 50 percent of senators, moved to lobbying firms after leaving office. And due to congressional inaction since then, he added, "I see no reason why that would have changed."

"Congress — GRECO is correct — has not done anything to address the revolving door since HLOGA in 2007," Holman said Tuesday.

Concerns surrounding the revolving door are hardly new to Washington, and both parties have long used the promise of "draining the swamp" to make inroads with voters, who poll overwhelmingly in opposition to the idea that former lawmakers can lean on their Rolodexes to exert disproportionate influence over public policy — and earn handsome salaries in the process.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' MORE campaigned successfully on that message in 2016, and upon taking office he issued an executive order promoting some of the same tough ethics rules adopted by his predecessor, President Obama, including restrictions on former-lobbyist hires directing policies they previously sought to influence. Since then, however, Trump has stacked his administration with former lobbyists, some of whom are now charged with overseeing the very issues they had lobbied before.

"It turns out that that pledge was really nothing but campaign rhetoric," said Holman. "The problem is it's going entirely unenforced."

House Democrats have made more serious strides, promoting a clean-government agenda last year as part of their midterm strategy, which helped them seize control of the chamber. The issue was one of just three central talking points on the campaign trail, and their first bill with their new majority in the House — H.R. 1 — featured several steps designed to limit the influence of former lawmakers racing to cash in on K Street.

Most significantly, the bill would expand those required to register as lobbyists to include strategic consultants and lobby-firm "advisers," closing an enormous loophole that currently allows former lawmakers to elude the temporary ban — one year for House members, two for senators — on lobbying government officials directly immediately after leaving Congress.

It would also require formal registration for those who spend at least 10 percent of their time lobbying for a client, versus the 20 percent threshold currently in place.

Yet congressional lawmakers of either party seem reluctant to limit their own future opportunities. A GOP proposal introduced in the last Congress to extend the post-Capitol Hill lobbying ban to five years died quietly without a hearing.

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterInternal poll shows tight battle in Montana House race Bipartisan Senate group offers bill to strengthen watchdog law after Trump firings Senate confirms Trump's watchdog for coronavirus funds MORE (D-Mont.) last month introduced similar legislation, which has little chance of moving through the Republican-controlled upper chamber, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Ernst: Renaming Confederate bases is the 'right thing to do' despite 'heck' from GOP Advocacy groups pressure Senate to reconvene and boost election funding MORE (R-Ky.) has refused to consider H.R. 1.

And Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsIn the next COVID-19 bill, target innovation and entrepreneurship Small businesses receive much-needed Paycheck Protection Program fixes House passes bill to grant flexibility for small business aid program MORE (D), a Minnesota freshman, had in mind to amend H.R. 1 to expand Obama's two-year "cooling off" period not only by capturing all lobbying activity — not just direct contacts with government officials — but by applying it to both Congress and the administration. In the final bill, only the executive branch is subject to the new limits.

"From some corners of the caucus there are concerns about it, which is unfortunate from our perspective," lamented one Democratic aide, not associated with Phillips's office, who's familiar with the debate.

Holman was even more biting.

"The members of Congress are perfectly willing to codify strong revolving door restrictions on the executive branch," he said, "but when it came to applying it to themselves, now [there's] limited appetite."

Some Democrats say they're not giving up, vowing to press forward with legislation to expand the broader restrictions to exiting members of Congress. The current system, they say, is a mockery, allowing former lawmakers to lobby in everything but name.

"They can still run a lobbying shop and do all the activity and basically supervise a lobbying scheme, they just can't be the ones to actually make the lobbying contact," said a second Democratic aide. "We want to do similar legislation that would apply to the legislative branch, as well."

The issue is making its way to the presidential trail, where Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTrump defends Roger Stone move: He was target of 'Witch Hunt' Democrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Pharma pricing is a problem, but antitrust isn't the (only) solution MORE (D-Mass.) is vowing to fight government corruption, in part by installing a lifetime lobbying ban on all elected officials.

GRECO, for its part, is not advocating for Warren's concept, a Council of Europe spokesman said this week, nor is it recommending a specific extension of the current cooling-off period. "But it could not disregard that the efficacy, including the length, of current cooling-off periods was subject to relevant criticism," spokesman Panos Kakaviatos said in an email.

Meanwhile, last year's disruptive midterms have highlighted the scope of the revolving door phenomenon in Washington, as a "who's who" of powerhouse former lawmakers quickly found their way to K Street.

The list includes former Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the previous head of the House Democratic Caucus, and former Rep. Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterLobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR MORE (R-Pa.), the former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who set up shop at Squire Patton Boggs, where they joined former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE (R-Ohio) as political consultants.

Lynn JenkinsLynn Haag JenkinsBottom line Former GOP Rep. Costello launches lobbying shop Kansas Republican dropping Senate bid to challenge GOP rep MORE, a Kansas Republican who retired after the last Congress, had launched her own lobbying shop last December, a month before she left Capitol Hill. Ex-Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE (D-Ind.) and ex-Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithHow effective are protests and riots for changing America? Education Department changing eligibility for hundreds of rural school districts receiving aid: report Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-Texas) headed to Akin Gump. And former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who had worked for five years with Washington's Covington & Burling firm before being tapped last September to replace the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain's reset: US-Vietnam relations going strong after 25 years Senate outlook slides for GOP Juan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden MORE (R-Ariz.), has since returned to the firm.

In the two years before his short return to the Senate, Kyl earned almost $1.9 million from Covington, according to his financial disclosure forms.

"Many ex-lawmakers find it difficult to resist the temptation of a big payday," said Alan Zibel, a researcher at Public Citizen. He warned the revolving door "tilts the playing field in favor of people who have the money to hire ex-lawmakers."

"We don't think that corporations should have privileged access to the people writing their laws," he said.

The growing prominence of the debate — combined with popular support for the reforms among voters — has left Democrats hashing out a plan to stage votes on individual parts of H.R. 1 where they might find bipartisan support. The strategy will begin with election security provisions — an issue highlighted by Russia's meddling in the 2016 cycle — but they are also eying votes on the lobbyist restrictions as a messaging tool heading into 2020.

"Obviously," said the first Democratic aide, "that would be a really good way to get Republicans on record quashing an anti-corruption bill."