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These former lawmakers aren’t allowed to be lobbyists just yet, but firms are hiring them anyway

Despite the required "cooling off" period, lobbying firms and interest groups are hiring up recently departed legislators.

Art by Diana Ofosu
Art by Diana Ofosu

A combination of retirements, resignations, and 2018 midterm election defeats has left more than 80 recently departed senators and representatives looking for new jobs. And while most have not yet announced their plans, a growing number have already gone through the proverbial “revolving door” into work for lobbying firms and interest groups.

A 1989 ethics law imposed a one-year “cooling off period,” prohibiting members of Congress from becoming registered lobbyists immediately after vacating their seats. This would help prevent them from lobbying their recent former colleagues. In 2007, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act doubled that cooling-off period to two years for the Senate.

There is, of course, a loophole: Legislators can take jobs with lobbying firms and interest groups as consultants, strategists, and rainmakers immediately after leaving office, just as long as they don’t do any federal lobbying themselves in that period.

Sheila Krumholz is the executive director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which has long tracked the revolving door. She said that in practice, the “hurdles” of cooling-off periods “seem to be fairly trivial,” as the “process continues largely unabated.”

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“As members of Congress and other government employees spin in and out of the public and private sector, so do privilege and power and access and money,” she explained. “Whether they’re registered lobbyists or advisers, they can still influence by knowing who to lobby, what to say, and (particularly if they are recently in office or in government) what’s going on.”

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen, observed that “they can simply call themselves consultants or a PR firm or a historian” and take on work for an interest group or law firm. “Substantively, [there is] not much difference” between that and becoming a lobbyist. Gilbert notes that these jobs are not captured by the existing lobbying disclosure law.

There’s a law pending in Congress that could close many of these loopholes: H.R. 1, or the For The People Act of 2019. The bill would tighten rules around lobbying registration for foreign and domestic lobbyists. More importantly, it specifies that doing advisory or consulting work in support of lobbying contacts would be considered lobbying — meaning those “historian” and “consultant” jobs would trigger requirements around disclosure, registration, and cooling-off periods. House Democrats are pushing the bill as a sweeping reforms package, but H.R. 1 is unlikely to make it past the Republican-controlled Senate.

This kind of shadow lobbying is “hurting democracy by skewing decision-making and undermining public trust in government,” Chandu Krishnan, who has extensively researched the ethics of the “revolving door” and served as executive director of Transparency International UK from 2004 to 2012, said. Because the rules are so weak, many individuals and firms can truthfully claim that they are in “full compliance with the law” even if their behavior is does not pass the smell test. “People focus on the big corruption issues,” Krishnan added. “But this is a much more insidious [problem].”

ThinkProgress has identified some of the former members of Congress who have, in full compliance with existing law, already taken positions with lobbying firms, policy shops, and political interest groups:

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA)

Reichert, who was chair of the Ways and Means Committee’s trade subcommittee, did not seek re-election in 2018. Earlier this month, Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs announced that he was joining the firm as a vice president. According to lobbying disclosure records, the company lobbies on behalf of multiple local governments, the International Boxing Federation, and Thermo Fischer Scientific’s Life Technologies Corporation.

Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS)

Jenkins, who chaired the Ways and Means Oversight subcommittee, did not seek re-election in 2018. Even before her term ended, she registered her new lobbying firm — LJ Strategies, LLC — with the state of Kansas. The Kansas City Star’s editorial board called this a “deeply distasteful” move with a “wide open window of potential conflicts of interest.” The firm has not yet registered any federal clients.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)

The former Science, Space, and Technology Committee chair, Smith did not seek re-election in 2018. He has already begun working as a “senior consultant” at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, where he “advises clients on a range of public policy and government relations issues.” The mega-firm usually tops the list of the biggest and highest-earning lobbying firms in D.C., with 2017 reported revenue over a billion dollars.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL)

Ros-Lehtinen, who also did not seek re-election in 2018, has also joined Akin Gump as a “senior adviser.” She served as House Foreign Affairs Committee chair from 2011 to 2013.

Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS)

Yoder, who chaired the Appropriations Committee’s homeland security subcommittee was defeated in November by Rep. Sharice Davids (D). He recently joined his former colleague Rep. Ben Quayle’s (R-AZ) Hobart Hallaway & Quayle Ventures firm as a partner. Their existing clients include the coal industry, Capital One, Duke Energy, T-Mobile, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s anti-consumer-protections arm.

Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN)

Messer, who chaired the House Republican Policy Committee, opted not to run for re-election in 2018 and unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. This month, Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting announced he had joined the firm as a “principal” whose job is to “advise businesses and others nationwide on federal regulatory and policy developments.” He promised to “help clients navigate the complex maze of federal policy decisions in Washington.” Faegre Baker Daniels represents lobbying clients including CMFG Life Insurance, the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, the uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources Inc., and Marathon Oil.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA)

Dent was a moderate Republican who had clashed with President Donald Trump – he introduced a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from any interference by the administration, and Trump allies in his own party threatened to primary him. Dent had been chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, before he resigned his seat in May 2018, rather than completing his entire term.

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Later that month, he was announced as a new “senior policy advisor” at DLA Piper’s government affairs practice. “His deep understanding of Congress and a range of international and domestic issues will be of invaluable benefit to our clients,” practice chair Ignacio Sanchez said in the announcement press release. The firm’s current lobbying clients include Apple, the Association of Banks in Lebanon, Comcast, General Cigar Holdings, Gulf Oil, the LPGA and PGA tours, and Raytheon.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA)

Comstock, who chaired the research and technology subcommittee of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, was defeated in November by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D). At the end of January, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC announced she had joined the firm as a “senior advisor” in the firm’s government relations and public policy group. Comstock said in the press release that she was “I am excited to join Baker Donelson and bring my decades of policy experience in the legislative, administrative, and private sector arenas, as well as a lifetime of relationships, to provide strategic guidance on building winning coalitions and strategies.”

The firm’s current clients include 3M, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, General Dynamics, General Electric, L3 Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Toshiba, and other companies whose work likely intersected with the subcommittee she until recently led.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA)

Costello announced he would not seek re-election in March 2018, just weeks after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out a gerrymandered redistricting map and made his district significantly more Democratic. This month, he became the new managing director for Americans for Carbon Dividends, an advocacy group that supports a federal carbon tax. “Climate change should be a top priority of Republicans in Congress, and that is why I am leaning in on this,” Costello told the Washington Examiner. The group has reportedly received major financial support from ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil.

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH)

Tiberi announced in October 2017, less than a year into his term, that he was going to resign his seat in January 2018 — giving up his position as Ways and Means health subcommittee chair. His stated reason: he had agreed to take a job with one of the state’s most prominent trade groups. “I have been presented with an opportunity to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable that will allow me to continue to work on public policy issues impacting Ohioans while also spending more time with my family,” he said at the time. According to the organization’s website, the group includes CEOs from Ohio’s “largest and most influential businesses” and works with the state’s government “in pursuit of policies that improve Ohio’s competitiveness.”

Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH)

In March 2017, Renacci announced he would run for Ohio governor and would not seek re-election to his House seat. In January 2018, citing a personal request from President Trump, he switched to what became an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). Left with no House, Senate, or gubernatorial job, he announced this month that he will instead a chair a new pro-business, tax-exempt political group called Ohio’s Future Foundation. It aims to pressure the state government for “vocational education, energy growth advocacy, municipal income tax reform, healthcare reform, and infrastructure funding.”

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ)

Until September 2018, Kyl was a retired senator representing an array of interests as a lobbyist for Covington & Burling LLP. His clients included JW Aluminum, Northrop Grumman, the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, and Qualcomm, among others. After the August death of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Republican Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Kyl fill the vacancy. But rather than serve out the full two-plus years of the appointment, Kyl resigned at the end of 2018 and rejoined Covington & Burling just days later as “Senior of Counsel.” The firm’s announcement noted that he will “focus on matters of policy and strategy for the firm’s clients.”

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Other recent lawmakers are apparently eyeing similar lobbying positions, but their moves haven’t been formalized or announced. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who lost to Democrat Harley Rouda (D) in the midterms, plans to create a consulting firm called R&B Strategies with Paul Behrends, a former top aide who was forced out of a House subcommittee staff director job after media reports about his Russia ties. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), who lost a June 2018 primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is under consideration for lobbying firm jobs or a a position for the video game industry’s lobbying arm, according to Politico.

Krumholz, at the Center for Responsive Politics, noted that the Jenkins and Kyl examples are particularly illustrative of the revolving door. “Jon Kyl going back to [his lobbying firm] so quickly after his most recent brief tenure on Capitol Hill: the revolving door spins both ways — and Lynn Jenkins establishing her lobbying firm [before leaving office] and placing her chief of staff [Pat Leopold as principal in the shop] while she waits out the cooling off period for herself; these demonstrate that the revolving is continuing to spin fast,” Krumholz said. “The journey from Congress to K Street is a very short one for so many.”

Not all former lawmakers have been tempted through the revolving door: Ex-Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) is running for president. Disgraced one-term Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D) is running for Las Vegas City Council. And ex-Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) has announced that he plans to spend at least part of his political retirement on smoking pot.

This story has been updated to include Barbara Comstock.