Banning former members of Congress from lobbying won't 'drain the swamp'

Banning former members of Congress from lobbying won't 'drain the swamp'
© Greg Nash

Twitter was recently abuzz about a possible collaboration between a quartet of unlikely allies, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrat launches primary challenge to Ocasio-Cortez Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Washington Times after story on her 'high-dollar hairdo' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — House Dems subpoena Giuliani associates MORE (D-N.Y.), Rep. Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoyTrump congratulates China on anniversary as GOP lawmakers decry communist rule Texas Republicans sound alarm about rapidly evolving state GOP lawmakers call for provisions barring DOD funds for border wall to be dropped MORE (R-Texas), Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSunday Show Preview: Trump's allies and administration defend decision on Syria O'Rourke raises .5 million in third quarter The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies Trump pushed for her ouster MORE (R-Texas), and Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzNBA draws bipartisan backlash over China response Federal aid is reaching storm-damaged communities too late Impeachment threatens to drown out everything MORE (D-Hawaii), to ban former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists once they leave Congress.

While the intentions are obviously good and these lawmakers should be applauded for their bipartisan effort, banning members of Congress from becoming lobbyists would do little to achieve their goal of “draining the swamp.”

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If lawmakers are serious about limiting the influence former members of Congress have on policy, a ban won’t work unless they also close the loophole that allows them to lobby Congress but not register as lobbyists.

Without closing the Lobbying Disclosure Act loophole, a lobbying ban would just push lobbying further into the shadows, something that has been gradually occurring for the past 15 years. Members of Congress would still flock to K Street when they leave Congress, but as “Policy Advisors” and “Special Councilors.” They would continue to influence Congress but not have to disclose what issues they are working on and who is paying them to do so.

Lawmakers would also have to make sure the laws they write are actually being enforced. A recent GAO report found that the Department of Justice only had one part-time attorney assigned to the office that enforces the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Additionally, 59 percent of referred cases had not been investigated, which could take multiple years at the current staffing levels.

The proposal being discussed between Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz, Roy and Schatz would also do nothing to close the revolving door of Congressional staffers, which is arguably more important than the revolving door of former members of Congress.

While former members of Congress give lobbying firms credibility with clients, congressional staffers are arguably just as influential because of their knowledge of the issues, their experience writing legislation, and their relationships with other staffers on the Hill. So, if a lobbying ban for former members of Congress were actually passed and enforced, the swamp would still be pretty swampy.

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There are much better proposals that would move us closer to the representative democracy the Founding Fathers had in mind. The most promising would be to increase congressional staff salaries so people are less inclined to leave for K Street after only working a couple of years on the Hill. This would do more to close the revolving door than any proposed ban or regulation.

What worries me the most, however, about the proposed ban is the unintended consequences it would have on issues that help people here in The United States and around the world.

Most people assume that all lobbyists work for nefarious corporate clients. While this may seem like the case based on news stories and social media posts, it is simply not true. There are many public interest groups and nonprofits that hire former members of Congress to lobby for them at heavily discounted rates on causes they care about.

Take, for example, Phil English, who lost his re-election bid in 2008 after 14 years in the House of Representatives. He joined one of DC’s largest lobbying firms, Arent Fox, in 2009 and started lobbying Congress after his one-year ban was lifted.

While he has corporate clients in the pharmaceutical and energy sectors, he also has lobbied for Catholic Charities USA, several research colleges and universities, as well as one of the top children’s hospitals in the country. While I do not know him personally, and cannot speak to his work, banning him from lobbying for these nonprofit organizations would have serious negative effects on their ability to perform their work and achieve their missions.

We need to stop distracting ourselves with proposed bans and increased regulations and look at the real reason corporations are able to influence our politicians. Corporate lobbyists are everywhere, all the time, speaking to staffers and members of Congress about their client’s issues. They outspend every other interest group by a considerably large margin and no policy proposal is going to prevent large companies from trying to influence our elected officials.

There is an old adage in D.C. that says, “If you are not at the table, then you are on the menu.” The real solution to leveling the playing field is for everyday citizens to hire lobbyists working on our side and make sure our voice is just as loud as corporate America’s.

Billy DeLancey is the Co-founder and CEO of Lobbyists 4 Good, the first crowdfunding platform that enables everyday people to hire professional lobbyists.