A bill was introduced on Thursday that would ban ex-congressmen from becoming lobbyists in Washington. This practice sometimes referred to as the “revolving door” has been criticized for furthering corruption in the political establishment and enriching former politicians as they keep their claws deep within the political sphere.
Republican Senator Cory Gardner with Democratic Senators Michael Bennet and Al Franken are introducing the legislation hoping to end this incestuous government practice.
According to the Center For Responsive Politics, 435 former members of congress are now lobbyists or “perform similar work.” This means that hundreds of the lobbyists who are influencing decisions in the government once served that government.
Attempts to curb the revolving door have been made in the past. In 2007, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The law promised to penalize corruption and bring transparency to the lobbying world. It failed to make good on that.
Now a decade later, the revolving door seems to have sped up.
According to POLITICO, out of the 352 living people who have left Congress since the act became law, 47% have become government influencers. Many of them became lobbyists, as well as policy advisers, strategic consultants, trade association chiefs, corporate government relations executives, affiliates of agenda-driven research institutes and leaders of political action committees or pressure groups.
The gaping problem with the 2007 bill is that it only accounts for the official lobbying side of political influence. It does nothing to stop ex-congressmen from rubbing shoulders with former colleagues, so long as they didn’t discuss official business for a year after they leave office. D.C. bars are chock full of under-the-table networking and less-than-ethical dealmaking.
One loophole often used by ex-congressmen is joining lobbying firms under titles such as “policy adviser.” This allows them to skirt the law while still maintaining their influence under a different title. Lobbying is just one of dozens of jobs these former politicians can take to stay involved in D.C. politics.
Unfortunately, the current bill seems to suffer from many of the same flaws as the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. While instituting a full ban on congressmen becoming lobbyists is certainly a step forward, it addresses only one small part of a much larger issue.
Former President Barack Obama has been paid $800,000 for just two speeches this year, one to Wall Street and another to a group of advertisers. Though this is not lobbying, it represents just one of a multitude of ways in which ex-politicians can use their experience in Washington to make money and influence policy making.
Lobbying goes back to the time of the Civil War, but lobbyists did not begin officially registering as such until after World War II. Despite the fact that a registry was created, it was mainly left up to the lobbyists as to whether they registered or not. It remained this way for five decades.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the term lobbyist was clearly defined. Ultimately it was decided that dealings between the private sector and Washington could only be called lobbying if the private individual contacted more than one politician and if they spent more than 20% of their time lobbying to a single client. This obviously left major loopholes in the system and it was often abused. It is sometimes affectionately referred to as “the 20 percent loophole.”
This flimsy definition lies at the heart of the issue with all bills addressing revolving door lobbyists. Reformers don’t dare bring up the idea of redefinition because it will be so hotly contested. Opponents will refuse to surrender, pointing to the first amendment right to petition.
While this bill may begin to chip away at the problem of the revolving door, it does not completely close it as it stands. The effect of the law would be greatly bolstered by a clear definition of lobbying, and an exhaustive legal framework to close the endless loopholes used by former lawmakers.
Only time will tell if this well-intentioned law will have its desired effect. Currently, there is a two-year “cooling period” that temporarily prevents former congressmen from lobbying after leaving office, and making the ban permanent is an important first step. However, it will only be truly effective if it addresses the shadier practices of the world of D.C. politics.