On K Street, An Ex-Senate Staffer Is Worth $740,000 A Year
To K Street firms, hiring the former employee of a current senator typically brings in $740,000 per year.
The connection itself is cash for these lobbying firms -- especially when the lawmaker is still in office. A new study from the London School of Economics finds that when a U.S. senator leaves the Hill, the lobbyists who used to be his staffers make 24 percent less money for their firms. That amounts to $177,000 less per lobbyist per year.
"Jesus," said retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). "The next year? I better tell that to my staff," he joked. "Don't go to K Street."
His advice will come too late for the minimum of 20 Dodd staffers who've already spun through the revolving door, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Dodd has promised that he himself will not become a lobbyist.) Dodd was central in the 111th Congress to credit card reform, health care legislation and Wall Street reform; his former staffers were some of the most valuable assets in Washington. Next year, they'll be worth much less.
The study, by Jordi Blanes i Vidal, Mirko Draca and Christian Fons-Rosen, also finds that lobbyists who worked in the House make 10 percent less when their former bosses hang it up, and lobbyist ex-staffers are more likely to quit lobbying when their former boss quits.
"That is a pretty striking figure," said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.). "It does almost sound like in the Senate the lobbyists are hired specifically to lobby their old boss. A little less so in the House, but still lobbyists are being hired to lobby people like their boss. So it makes sense the dip would be not quite as severe."
The study puts a hard number on a phenomenon long identified as elemental to the U.S. political system. "Consistent with the notion that lobbyists sell access to powerful elected officials, the drop in revenue increases with the seniority of and committee assignments power held by the Senator immediately prior to leaving office," the report says. "The finding that a large portion of what makes revolving door lobbyists particularly attractive is perishable has the implication that staffers may have relatively short careers. Once a connection to a powerful Senator has been established, a staffer may want to move into lobbying and cash in this unique asset while it is still valuable."
Ivan Adler, a headhunter with the McCormick Group, has frequently said that "Once your rabbi leaves, your value always goes down." Adler read the report and agreed with the basic premise. But he says there are "Three Ps" -- People, Process, and Policy -- that determine a potential lobbyists' value. A staffer from a "money committee," such as the Senate Banking Committee or the House Energy and Commerce Committee, can make up what he or she might lack in connections by being very knowledgeable about process and policy. "The people part of it is only a part of it," Adler said.
Energy and Commerce chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), however, said that the report shows that the most valuable thing most lobbyists have to offer is a specific relationship. He said the report's premise rang true -- but he boasted that there aren't too many K Streeters who'd be sad to see him leave the Hill. "It reminds me of how grateful I am that so many of the staff that I've had over the years stayed in public interest work. I can't think of more than one or two that ever went into lobbying," Waxman said. "I know for a fact that some lobbyists are hired because of the relationship with a particular member."
Only one of Waxman's former staffers, according to the CRP, is now doing corporate lobbying. Waxman won his contested primary this year, so the lobbyist is safe for another term.
"What makes those who spin through the revolving door such valuable commodities is not their expertise -- revolving door lobbyists do not usually possess any greater knowledge than others in the field -- but it is their connections," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen. "They are literally selling their Rolodexes. It makes perfect sense, as the study shows, that when a revolving door lobbyist loses his or her connections in Congress, their value to special interests drops."
As long as members of Congress rely for re-election on campaign contributions generated by interest groups with business before Congress, the revolving door will continue to swing, as the need for cash gives corporate lobbyists abundant opportunities to spend time with former bosses and colleagues. The only way to put a stopper in it is to take away the need for that campaign cash by publicly funding campaigns, said retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.).
"People say, 'Oh, I don't want my public money spent on campaigns.' Well, guess what? It already is, in the form of special interest deals and this, that and the other and this revolving door everybody hates and earmarking and blah, blah, blah," said Kennedy. "So how do we change it? Take away the need for people to have to turn that stuff around and you're going to make a big difference."
Kennedy said that the study rang true to him. "You're going to pay for it one way or the other, either upfront or through the backdoor. And it's a lot cheaper to pay upfront and come up with a system that works," he said. "If you take away the demand for the private sector to play such a heavy role, you're taking away an ingredient to this mix that 's creating the ugly correlation that you're seeing in this study."
Public financing for campaigns is a long way from happening, but a bill to alleviate the need for constant fundraising did advance in the House on Thursday. Progressive groups, led by MoveOn.org, are working to persuade candidates and members of Congress to pledge to take three concrete actions to reduce the influence of money in politics.
Republicans staffers have struggled to stay relevant while Democrats have controlled Congress for four years and the White House for two, but are looking at a retainer renaissance; even if Republicans fail to take either chamber, the narrower majority will make the minority relevant.
Former Blue Dog Democratic staffers, on the other hand, will see their stocks drop, unless their ex-boss happens to be among the handful of those expected to hang on. "Blue Dog staffers are more in demand than ever," Rep. Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog Democrat from Tennessee told Roll Call over the summer. "This is a sign that most of the decisions on governing are going to be made in the middle, and who knows the middle more than Blue Dogs?"
Those firms are likely to have a rough case of buyer's remorse come November. Those staffers might "know the middle," but they won't know the specific people in the middle.
The academic finding about a staffer's half-life as a lobbyist suggests the financial wisdom of a common career move: Returning to the Hill after a stint downtown. HuffPost reported in December that the House Financial Services Committee, for instance, was a shelter to 16 staffers who'd previously worked as lobbyists -- a dozen of them Democrats. Lobbyists speak wistfully of returning to Congress, however, and usually don't talk about going back and forth to boost their careers. They only left, after all, so they could send their kids to private school.
"I have never heard anyone specifically tell me that they want to go back in order to 'boomerang,'" said Adler. "The staffers I have spoken to have always wanted to go back to the Hill because they have wanted to further a political agenda and not an individual agenda." But returning to the Hill allows a lobbyist to refresh relationships that have gone stale while the ex-staffer labored on K Street, away from the action. (The big secret on K Street is that many lobbyists are starved for information about what's going on on in what was once their playground, though must maintain the opposite in order to continue to pull in monthly client retainers.)
Peter Rubin left the Hill in 2000 to lobby for Big Pharma, for instance, and returned in 2008 to direct a subcommittee chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), just as health care reform began to ramp up. Once passage was assured this year, he announced he'd be returning to the drug industry as a lobbyist for Sanofi-Aventis.
"The door doesn't just revolve once," said Miller in December. "They tend to go out and come back and go out again. It really does create a set of financial incentives, whether conscious or not."
Click HERE to download a PDF of "Revolving Door Lobbyists."