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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-CortezTexas man charged for alleged role in Capitol riots, online death threats to Ocasio-Cortez DC residents jumped at opportunity to pay for meals for National Guardsmen Tensions running high after gun incident near House floor MORE (D-N.Y.) and conservative Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Ethics complaint filed against Biggs, Cawthorn and Gosar over Capitol riot Hawley, Cruz see approval ratings dip in wake of Capitol riot: poll 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 BoehnerCan the GOP break its addiction to show biz? House conservatives plot to oust Liz Cheney Ex-Speaker Boehner after Capitol violence: 'The GOP must awaken' 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 McConnellBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Kentucky Republican committee rejects resolution urging McConnell to condemn Trump impeachment Calls grow for 9/11-style panel to probe Capitol attack MORE (R-Ky.).

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenStudent loan forgiveness would be windfall for dentists, doctors and lawyers OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (D-Mass.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetTop Democrat pushes for tying unemployment insurance to economic conditions 50-50 Senate opens the door to solutions outlasting Trump's moment of violence Build trust in vaccines by investing in community workers 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 McCarthyHouse GOP leader says he has 'concerns' over Cheney's impeachment vote McCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden Cheney tests Trump grip on GOP post-presidency 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 CicillineK Street navigates virtual inauguration week Washington state rep joins list of Republicans voting to impeach Trump Growing number of GOP lawmakers say they support impeachment 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 HollingsworthHillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump campaign tweet of Biden clip as manipulated media | Democrats demand in-person election security briefings resume | Proposed rules to protect power grid raise concerns Lawmakers call for bipartisan push to support scientific research The Hill's 12:30 Report: Presidential race tightens in key states 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 BraunBiden signals he's willing to delay Trump trial McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' 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.