States set an example of slowing down the federal revolving door

States set an example of slowing down the federal revolving door
© Greg Nash

When members of Congress and other elected officials leave federal office, they usually move into highly lucrative jobs, either joining a lobbying firm or working as “strategic consultants” on behalf of business lobbying campaigns. The inside connections into the halls of power by newly retired public officials make them invaluable influence peddlers for those who can afford to hire them. A recent study by Public Citizen found that nearly 60 percent of the 2019 class of retiring members of Congress moved into these jobs. It is not supposed to be this way.

A wave of ethics laws began in the 1970s to restrain former government officials from selling their insider knowledge and access to the highest bidder in a troubling lobbying scheme known as the “revolving door.” At the federal level, the original Ethics in Government Act of 1978 banned former senior executive branch officials for one year from making “any formal or informal appearance before” their former agencies. In 1989, the scope of the revolving door restriction was expanded to include members of Congress and their senior staff. Many states across the country followed suit with their own versions of revolving door restrictions.

There are two solid reasons for reining in the revolving door of officials who turn into lobbyists. The first reason is to ensure that public servants are not influenced in the performance of public duties by the thought of later reaping special benefits from a prospective employer. The second reason is to prevent officials from cashing in on their inside connections. These are noble objectives, but the revolving door restrictions at the federal level remain largely a failed experiment. Congress should look to the states, the laboratories of democracy, to learn from their experiences. A review of state laws by Public Citizen shows that Iowa, Maryland, and North Dakota in particular offer some “best practices” that squarely address the ethics shortcomings found in Washington.

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Despite efforts to slow the revolving door at the federal level, it is spinning way out of control. An academic study by Jeffrey Lazarus, Amy McKay, and Lindsey Herbel found that while just roughly 5 percent of lawmakers in Congress became lobbyists in the 1970s, almost half of retiring members become lobbyists today. Why have federal efforts to rein in the revolving door failed so miserably? The problem is threefold.

First, the cooling off period of one year for members of the House during which they are not supposed to be influencing government on behalf of paying clients after leaving public service is far too short. One year does not even cover a session of Congress and involves little turnover among officials and staff. In order to let inside connections fade, the cooling off period must be at least a full legislative cycle or even longer. A public opinion poll found that a solid majority of respondents favored a cooling off period of five years, while nearly half also favored a lifetime ban.

Second, the influence peddling activity prohibited during the cooling off period applies only to making “lobbying contacts.” Former officials are allowed immediately to join a lobbying firm and strategize for a lobbying campaign. They are simply prohibited from picking up the telephone and making the contact. Third, former officials are immediately allowed to make lobbying contacts with other branches or agencies in which they did not serve. This loophole is particularly problematic for elected officials and agency heads who develop strong ties across the government.

More than a dozen states recognize that a cooling off period of two years, enough for a full legislative cycle after which there is significant turnover among officials and staff, better breaks down the connections that makes revolvers so valuable. Florida is about to implement a cooling off period of six years. Importantly, more than a dozen states have expanded the scope of prohibited activity during the cooling off period to include strategic consulting for lobbying campaigns on top of making lobbying contacts. Finally, several states prohibit lobbying any agency or legislative body during the cooling off period, so no lobbying on behalf of paying clients.

What has been achieved at the state level shows what is possible at the federal level. Three key improvements of extending the cooling off period to two years or longer, banning lobbying activity as well as lobbying contacts, and prohibiting senior officials from lobbying any agency or branch of government would transform a system ridden with loopholes into an ethics policy quite capable of slowing the revolving door.

Craig Holman is the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.