Specifically, Zimmer wanted to increase the one-year-ban on lobbying for former members to two years and strip former lawmakers registered as lobbyists of their special access to gyms, dining rooms and other members-only areas on Capitol Hill. The goal, he said, was to level the lobbying playing field.
The legislation did not pass. But Zimmer did—right through the revolving door. In 2001, five years after he left Congress, Zimmer registered as a lobbyist with the Los Angeles firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, where the former member of the Ways and Means Committee now lobbies on taxation and other issues.
“I thought it was appropriate to abide by my own standards,” Zimmer said in an interview with the Center. But, he added, “I did not say anyone could never lobby.”
Zimmer is just one of the more than 2,200 former federal government employees registered as federal lobbyists between 1998 and 2004, according to a study of federal records by the Center for Public Integrity. Altogether, records show, more than 12 percent of current lobbyists are former executive and legislative branch employees. This includes more than 200 former members of Congress (175 from the House, 34 from the Senate) and 42 former agency heads.
These former government officials are indispensable to Washington’s lobbying firms. Whether they saw the legislative process from the vantage point of Capitol Hill or in an office of the federal bureaucracy, they bring their new employers the unique understanding of government and the connections to key decision-makers that only an insider can develop.
While some question the conflicts of interest inherent in “revolving-door” connections, most lobbying firms along Washington’s K Street corridor are not shy about disclosing their employees with prior positions. Indeed, many of these firms’ Web sites openly boast about their transplants from the public sector.
While it’s impossible to assign an exact dollar figure to the amount these revolving-door lobbyists bring in, the Center found the reported billings associated with them to be substantial. Former government employee lobbyists, who routinely work in concert with other lobbyists, appear on almost 80,000 lobbying disclosure forms amounting to $4.7 billion—a quarter of self-reported lobbying expenditures* and two thirds of lobbying firm fees reported for the period between 1998 and mid-2004.
Lobbying industry expert James Thurber said he was not surprised by the number of former government officials working as lobbyists. After all, he noted, the revolving door allows for “undue influence” by former government employees and those that can afford their services.
Thurber called lobbying “a second-career option” for those leaving government—one that can be much more lucrative than working in the public sector. “No one wants to leave Washington,” said Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “You either work for the government or someone who is trying to influence the government.”
Employing one or more former members of Congress is standard operating procedure for Washington’s top lobby shops. For example, Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, which reported $54 million in lobbying fees between 1998 and 2004, has three on its roster, including former senator Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington, and two retired Democratic representatives, Lloyd Meeds of Washington and Robert Davis of Michigan.
“The advantages are that they know how the system works,” Mark Ruge, director of the policy group at the firm, said about having the former legislators on staff. He said former government officials offer contacts, expertise on the issues and knowledge of the legislative process. “They have a sense of how it works on the inside, so they do a better job on the outside,” Ruge said.
‘Once a member, always a member’
Another advantage for lawmakers-turned-lobbyists is access. Former members of Congress retain access to the members-only dining facilities, gymnasiums, cloakrooms and the chamber floors—areas not accessible to others.
In an interview with the Center, former Illinois Rep. Mike Flanagan characterized his unhampered access to legislative offices and lawmakers by saying: “‘Once a member, always a member’ is the axiom, and it’s pretty much true.”
Flanagan, who founded Flanagan Consulting, LLC after leaving Congress, said he uses his access to impress clients and their families during their visits to Washington. For example, Flanagan can treat them to the view from the Speaker of the House’s balcony.
“Mrs. CEO and the children of CEOs like to do the Capitol tours, and I can go places that ordinary mortals can’t in the Capitol,” Flanagan said. “I can make them open the House floor if they’re not in session, so they can have a private House floor view. It costs the taxpayer nothing; they just have to turn a lock and let me in.”
It is common for former lawmakers, staffers and regulators to lobby on the very issues they worked on during their public service. In fact, 82 percent of revolving door lobbyists identified by the Center have reported lobbying their former agency or government office since registering as a lobbyist.
For instance, J. Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat who once served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has lobbied on energy bills for such clients as Lockheed Martin and Westinghouse Electric Co. since leaving Congress. Similarly, Brian Thiel, who formerly served as chief operating officer for civilian healthcare programs and policies at the Defense Department’s Office of Health Affairs, now lobbies the Pentagon for scores of clients, including Ardiem Medical Inc., Conemaugh Health System and Health Net Federal Services.
Thomas Bliley, who represented Virginia’s 7th district for two decades before joining the law firm Collier Shannon Scott, called his move from lawmaker to lobbyist “a natural progression” after retiring from Congress.
Bliley, whose former district includes Richmond—home of Philip Morris USA—was known as an outspoken supporter of the tobacco industry during his tenure in Congress. He now lobbies on tobacco regulation issues for two clients: the Tobacco Products Manufacturers Coalition and the National Association of Convenience Stores.
“You represent a client. You open doors and the client goes in and makes his case or he doesn’t,” Bliley said. “It is all disclosed. There is not a hidden agenda.”
The former chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce said his “old friends” in the House still receive him well. In fact, he said, he’s at times better received these days, now that those former colleagues don’t need his votes.
Government ethics law prohibits senior executive branch staff from lobbying their former department or agency for one year after leaving government. Similarly, former members of Congress and senior legislative staff may not lobby Congress for one year—a so-called cooling off period Bliley characterized as “unfortunate.”
“What is a year supposed to do?” he asked, noting that any given group of representatives will be in the House for at least two years anyway. “It is an unnecessary impediment.”
Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) also finds the one-year cooling off period to be ineffective, although for entirely different reasons: the main problem with the revolving door, he said, is not that lobbyists have relationships with people currently in government, but those still in public office may feel a temptation to consider a prospective employer’s needs. To remedy this, Andrews has twice introduced bills designed to extend the time between serving as a member of Congress and lobbying Congress from one year to five years.
“We can only serve one master at a time,” Andrews said. “When you are in elected office and hold the public trust, your only master can be the public. If you could lobby [a year from now] I don’t believe all of your decisions today would be guided by your constituents, but by your future employer.”
But as Andrews and some colleagues are pressing for stricter reforms, other government regulators have been loosening rules for revolving-door lobbyists.
The Office of Government Ethics eased the “covered positions” rule in November for some cabinet heads and other top cabinet officials. The change allows senior officials in the Department of Homeland Security and various other agencies to lobby their former colleagues immediately after leaving government, provided none of them worked in the same division of the agency.
Andrews called the rule change a “terrible idea,” insisting that it only exacerbates the problem of public officials serving two competing interests while still in government: one public and one private.
Note to readers: This story has been reposted. Since the report was originally released, the Center for Public Integrity has changed the way it calculates lobbying expenditures to reflect a more stringent methodology for determining the total amounts. The change was made to correct the potential overstatement of totals. Figures or relevant text that have been changed are indicated with asterisks. (5/2/2006)