Christopher Buckley’s review of Mark Leibovich’s “In This Town,” a Thackeray-esque exposé of official Washington, uncovers this buried morel on page 330 of the book. In 1974, just 3% of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Today, 50% of retiring Senators and 42% of retiring House members stay in DC and become lobbyists. The more than 1,500% increase goes a long way towards explaining how an entrenched, permanent political class has risen in DC.
Now, I think lobbyists often get a bad rap. Government action, either by legislation or regulation, has a deep impact on the economy. Industry reps and lobbyists provide important information for how a proposed action would effect a company or business sector. Without this information, the unintended consequences from legislation would often be far worse than they already are.
That said, you don’t need a former Senator or Congressman to fill this need. They don’t receive million-dollar pay packages simply to articulate how rewriting a section of the Code will impact a particular business. Their pay is justified because they provide an interest with access, the implication being that it would be less without their services. Their relationships and allies also give them the ability to “fix” certain problems that may arise, with either a bill or a proposed regulation.
An increasing concern, however, is how this dynamic plays out before the member retires. When GOP Rep. Billy Tauzin was in the House, he held considerable power over the nation’s health care system. After he left Congress, Tauzin took $1 million a year job heading up PhRMA, the drug industry’s powerful trade association. Did the potential of becoming a lobbyist for the industry affect how he oversaw it while he was in Congress?
I haven’t yet read Leibovich’s book, but it is possible the 50% figure actually understates the revolving door between Congress and K Street. Lobbying registration covers only a portion of the activities that are now common in influencing legislation and regulation. The heads of powerful trade associations often don’t even need to register as a lobbyist, leaving the direct “reportable” activities to in-house staff.
Influence has become a massive industry. Buckley notes that in Obama’s first year in office, the lobbying industry earned $3.4 billion in fees. Since these are the fees that are “reportable,” they cover only a portion of the amounts spent, and earned, trying to influence government. The real figure is probably several times that.
The prospect of earning millions of dollars post-Congress would be a powerful incentive for many members. The only question is, an incentive for what?