WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Bob Bennett plans to register as a corporate lobbyist on Thursday, marking the end -- to the day -- of the two-year period during which the Utah Republican was banned from lobbying Congress by federal law. He's one of 15 former senators, eight Republicans and seven Democrats, who retired or lost their reelection bids in 2010 and will be eligible Thursday to begin lobbying Capitol Hill.
Although Bennett is the only one who has expressly stated that he will register to lobby this week, a number of his fellow recently retired senators have already taken on almost-but-not-quite-lobbying positions. None of them is officially listed as a lobbyist -- at least not yet.
This group includes former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who heads the Motion Picture Association of America; former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who chairs an arm of the typically right-leaning National Federation of Independent Business; former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who joined the D.C. law firm and lobbying powerhouse Arent Fox; former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who advises clients on government affairs as a partner at the law firm McGuireWoods; and former Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who started a government relations firm a few months after leaving the Senate.
As Bennett last month prepared to register, he had harsh words for the congressional lobbying ban, telling the Salt Lake Tribune that it infringed upon his constitutional right to free speech.
"Lobbying is a constitutionally sanctioned activity, right in the First Amendment next to the freedom of the press," Bennett told his hometown paper. "I don't see any reason why I shouldn't exercise my constitutional rights."
Americans have a right to petition the government under the First Amendment, which is broadly interpreted as both a right to sue the government and a right to lobby its officials.
The short-term lobbying ban on former members of Congress is designed to prevent recently retired lawmakers from leveraging their personal and professional relationships with current lawmakers to serve clients immediately after leaving office. The ban is also intended to prevent the promise of future lobbying work from influencing how current members vote.
In 2007, Bennett co-sponsored the] extension of the ban from one year to two for former senators, but he changed his tune after he was defeated in the 2010 Utah GOP primary by Tea Party-backed candidates.
That same week, Bennett formed the Bennett Consulting Group with a handful of his former Senate staffers. According to the firm's website, Bennett and his colleagues offer clients "substantive and experienced federal representation to help your company navigate the waters of legislation, regulation, procurement, advocacy, and everything in between."
The two-year ban on Bennett himself did not prevent his firm from registering to lobby on behalf of big banks, whose goal was to weaken the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, mere months after Bennett, a longtime member of the Senate Banking Committee, left the Senate.
In early 2011, Bennett's firm registered to lobby for the Financial Services Forum, a coalition of CEOs of the nation's 20 largest financial institutions. Bennett Consulting Group also lobbied on behalf of JP Morgan Chase, according to Senate disclosure forms. The ban on Bennett himself is reflected in the fact that only his colleagues' names appear on the disclosure forms.
The former senator acknowledged to the Tribune that the ban amounted to little more than a paper-thin wall between him and his firm's lobbying clients. Is it really a problem, he asked, "if a former member calls one of his colleagues and says, 'Will you please take a meeting from one of my clients … as opposed to having [my] client call and say, 'I'm here because Senator Bennett recommended that you were the person I should talk to about this?'"
According to good-government groups and transparency watchdogs, there are plenty of problems with former lawmakers lobbying.
"To have a former member lobbying on your behalf is like hitting a home run -- but they're paid top dollar for their work and hiring one is expensive," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, on the center's Open Secrets blog last month. "So while [former members of Congress] make effective advocates, the question is: are we getting policy based on the merits or the money?"
Bennett denied to the Tribune that he has outsized influence among his former colleagues. "The whole notion that there is somehow inappropriate influence is a myth," he said.
Whether or not the influence is inappropriate, it's certainly lucrative. Bennett Consulting Group has been paid more than $400,000 in lobbying fees since 2011, according to disclosure forms.
Bennett isn't the only former senator with lobbying news this week. On Wednesday, Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James announced that Kit Bond Associates had been awarded a contract to lobby Congress on behalf of Kansas City. Bond, the mayor said, "has long been a friend of Kansas City and will be a powerful voice in Washington to assist in accomplishing our goals."
The timing of the announcement was notable, coming a day before Bond could officially register to lobby Congress on behalf of any client. But the Kansas City Star quoted a mayoral spokesman who said that Bond, a former three-term senator and two-term governor of Missouri, will leverage his ties to congressional Republicans in order to secure transportation funding for the state.