Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz lobbying ban faces tough hurdles

Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz lobbying ban faces tough hurdles
© Greg Nash

An unlikely pairing between progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants Harris, Ocasio-Cortez push climate equity bill with Green New Deal roots Young minority voters show overwhelming support for Biden: poll MORE (D-N.Y.) and conservative Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump-backed Hagerty wins Tennessee GOP Senate primary The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal MORE (R-Texas) has given new momentum to efforts to pass a lifetime ban on former lawmakers lobbying. 

But lobbyists and K Street-watchers are skeptical, saying they have seen similar efforts falter in the past. Lobbyists told The Hill any bill would be a long-shot bid and if passed could face a fierce challenge in the courts.

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Nathan Daschle, president of The Daschle Group, a public policy advisory of Baker Donelson, told The Hill banning former lawmakers from lobbying hits constitutional issues.

“Let’s all exhale and remember that we are talking about First Amendment rights,” Daschle, the son of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who founded The Daschle Group after leaving Congress, told The Hill.

“Clients hire former members because they understand D.C. better than anyone. Whose interest is served by denying Americans their best representation?” he asked.

Jumping from Congress to K Street is a longtime Washington tradition involving many prominent lawmakers. Tom Daschle began working on K Street after leaving Congress in 2005 and formally registered as a lobbyist in 2015.

Former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who works at Squire Patton Boggs, has been a registered lobbyist since he left the Senate in 2005, with ex-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) at the same firm. Former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future Lott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients MORE (R-Ohio) also made the leap to advocacy work but is not a registered lobbyist.

Talk of a ban is also far from new, but the new partnership between Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez has revived the debate.

“I don’t think it should be legal at ALL to become a corporate lobbyist if you’ve served in Congress. At minimum there should be a long wait period,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted last week. Cruz responded that he agreed and floated the prospect of “bipartisan cooperation.” 

The two offices are already holding staff-level meetings this week to discuss the next steps.

The efforts come during a rough year for K Street, which finds itself facing tougher scrutiny from both parties.

House Democratic leadership passed H.R. 1, a sweeping ethics and electoral reform bill that includes tough new restrictions on lobbying but not a lifetime ban on lawmakers. But that effort has been ignored in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (R-Ky.).

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden VP race is highly fluid days before expected pick Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package MORE (D-Mass.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHow Congress is preventing a Medicare bankruptcy during COVID-19 Tom Cotton rips NY Times for Chinese scientist op-ed criticizing US coronavirus response Our national forests need protection — and Congress can help MORE (D-Colo.), two 2020 presidential candidates, both want to ban lobbying by former lawmakers.

But lobbyists who spoke to The Hill downplayed suggestions that the idea has hit a turning point, saying that a ban would be unworkable.

“Fundamentally, you have a First Amendment problem. You’re banning a class of people from petitioning lawmakers,” Rich Gold, the leader of Holland & Knight’s public policy and regulation group, told The Hill. “Even if it passes muster, is that really a trend that you want to start? It just seems the opposite direction of where we would want to push for transparency.”

Gold said that a blanket ban on lawmakers registering as lobbyists would be ineffective because many lawmakers are part of the influence world but not registered lobbyists. 

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.

“If you look around town, I’m going to guess close to half of former members who are in advocacy roles are not registered. You would have to see significantly ramped up enforcement for a ban to really bite,” Gold said.

Ocasio-Cortez has also acknowledged that issue.

“I want to see the scope of this. I think we agree in principal,” she told reporters Wednesday. “I think there should be a ban on registered lobbyists, but when you actually dig into the numbers of members of Congress who went to lobbying groups, out of the dozens that went last year, only two actually became officially registered lobbyists.”

She added that she was eager to meet Cruz to work out specifics.

Supporters of a ban call it an important step in tackling a complicated issue.  

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, said former lawmakers who lobby “trade on the connections they have, the access they have with folks in Congress.”

The tweet exchange between Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez began in response to a Public Citizen report that 59 percent of members in the class of 2019 — 26 out of 44 — took lobbying or advocacy jobs. 

Gold, though, argued that talk of a lifetime ban “fundamentally” misunderstands how former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists work. 

“They really do spend most of their time thinking big thoughts and on the strategic side, not buttonholing the Speaker or the minority leader and saying, ‘I need you to do this for me,’ ” he said. “That’s not how this town works anymore. No one has that degree of power.”

Other critics say targeting only lawmakers won’t address the broader issue of a revolving door between Congress and K Street. Dan Meyer, president of the lobbying firm Duberstein Group, on Monday was named House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyJudge throws out House GOP lawsuit over proxy voting Republicans fear disaster in November Gaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker MORE’s (Calif.) chief of staff. Former congressional staffers also make up a huge number of lobbyists in Washington.

But Gilbert said the influence former members have was not comparable.

“In some instances, with other classes of folks, staffers ... there’s a sense that that kind of Rolodex will fade over time. But with members, it lingers,” she said.

Currently, there are rules in place to force former lawmakers to take a cooling off period. Senators are banned from lobbying Congress for two years after leaving office, while House members are banned for one year.

Still, in the 2019 class of lawmakers-turned-lobbyists, 15 former members are lobbying at firms and two started their own firms, The Hill reported in May.

Michael Williams, founder of the Williams Group, said a lifetime ban on lawmakers would be too severe.

“To say that you’re going to ban members of Congress from advocacy work, it’s just a bridge too far,” Williams told The Hill. 

But Williams conceded Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez would drum up attention.

“The difference this time is the rhetoric is so hot and they pump up members on both sides in terms of the swamp,” he said.

Lawmakers who have long fought for a ban say Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez can only boost their cause.

In every term since he entered Congress in 2011, Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineFive takeaways from Big Tech's blowout earnings What factors will shape Big Tech regulation? Hillicon Valley: House panel grills tech CEOs during much anticipated antitrust hearing | TikTok to make code public as it pushes back against 'misinformation' | House Intel panel expands access to foreign disinformation evidence MORE (D-R.I.) has introduced a bill along with fellow Rep. David Loebsack (D-Iowa) to prohibit members of Congress from working as lobbyists once they leave public service. They will reintroduce it this Congress.

Cicilline told The Hill Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez highlighted that “people think the system is broken.”

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Asked why his bill had failed to get traction in the past, Cicilline suggested lawmakers were reluctant to criticize former colleagues.

“There’s a lot of really good people who are former members who do this work,” he said. But, he added, “You’re not making a statement about the individuals but about the practice.”

Working out the details will be a challenge for Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez. She has called for banning corporate lobbying. But conservatives will likely question whether former lawmakers should be allowed to keep advocating for public interest groups or unions.

Supporters of a ban insist they will push ahead.

Rep. Trey HollingsworthJoseph (Trey) Albert HollingsworthThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Nano Vision CEO Steve Papermaster says we may need a new TSA-like institution for dealing with future pandemics; Fauci says Trump didn't seek a slowdown on testing The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Hurd says China engaged in global disinformation campaign; US unemployment highest since Great Depression The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Chef José Andrés says most political leaders today are not acting with urgency; Dems crafting 'Rooseveltian' relief package MORE (R-Ind.) introduced legislation in February that would also ban former members from registering to be lobbyists. A Senate version was introduced by Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts Lawmakers aim for COVID-19 relief deal this week MORE (R-Ind.) and is co-sponsored by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).

“I’m happy to see that Mr. Cruz and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez also care about this,” Hollingsworth told The Hill. “The more people we can get talking about this very issue ... the better off we are.”

Niv Elis contributed.