A new study finds that nearly 400 House staffers have moved from Capitol Hill to K Street in recent years, suggesting that recent efforts to curb the revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying are having limited effect.
At least 378 of the 5,710 staffers working on the House side of the Hill at the end of 2009 have since left to become registered lobbyists, according to a report from the Sunlight Foundation, a government accountability group.
Corporate America was the biggest beneficiary of this exodus, Sunlight found. Fully 80 percent of the 378 House staffers-turned-lobbyists are working for corporations, industry groups, or Washington lobbying firms with mostly business clients.
On the other hand, nonprofits advocacy groups are only represented by 37 of these recent ex-staffers, the report noted. Only one works directly for a union group, although on K Street some lobbyists have labor clients.
Regardless of which special interest is signing their checks, Sunlight thinks this steady migration from public to private pay is a cause for concern.
"Congress continues to act as a farm team for future lobbyists," said Lee Drutman, the senior fellow who authored the report released Wednesday. "Staff build up contacts and policy and political experience. Then they often go 'downtown' and cash in, taking their expertise and networks with them."
State and local governments were heavy users of House staffers' knowledge and contacts, a circumstance that most likely reflects the tradition of relying on personal connections to obtain earmarks for public works projects. They had 295 lobbying contracts associated with the newly hired congressional staffers, the most of any single group, followed closely by pharmaceutical and medical device companies (263 contacts), education groups (261), computer and Internet companies (226), and electric utilities (196).
Business associations were the top-spending group; even though they had only 86 contracts with the new hires, they spent a total of $343 million on lobbying since 2009. Other big spenders were phone companies ($253 million) and computer and internet companies ($202 million).
Two thirds of the staffers snatched up by K Street came from members' personal offices. The migration was bipartisan, but more of those who left in the period studied worked for Democratic lawmakers -- 147, compared to 96 from GOP offices, a ratio that likely had to do with the 63 seats House Democrats lost in the 2010 mid-term elections.
Serving as a lawmaker's counsel was the most likely launchpad for a downtown job -- 11.2 percent of staffers with that job title have left the House to lobby since 2009, Sunlight found. Legislative director positions (8.9 percent became lobbyists) and legislative counsels (8.8 percent) were the other in-demand titles.
Certain committees were particularly likely to spawn lobbyists. More than 12 percent of staffers who were on the House Financial Services Committee are now lobbyists working to steer the implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill they helped craft, according to the Sunlight study. The Judiciary Committee, where seven of its 78 staffers went to K Street, and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where 8.7 percent of aides became lobbyists, were the next two with the highest turnover rates.
The newly-hired lobbyists were competing in 2011 for a share of an estimated $3.27 billion in fees paid by private companies and others for such work. That amount was down from $3.51 billion in 2010, the first decrease in a decade, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics last month.
The reason for the decline in declared expenditures is unclear. Many former lobbyists have de-listed but are still engaged part-time in lobbying activities that fall just short of the thresholds set by the Lobbying Disclosure Act. As a result, their payments don't count toward the 2011 total spent on registered federal lobbyists.
Others have sought to avoid registering as lobbyist in the first place, watchdogs say. In the wake of new ethics rules imposed by the Obama administration, having lobbying on one's resume could make an executive branch position hard to come by.
Complicating any reform is the fact that the revolving door separating lobbyists from lawmakers spins both ways. A CRP study in July found that 128 former lobbyists were employed working for the 112th Congress, a 130-percent increase from the last session.
Not surprisingly, a recent effort to impose new transparency on lobbyists has stalled in the legislature.
The Lobbying Disclosure Enhancement Act, a bill supported by Sunlight that would force lobbyists to disclose who they met with and when, was introduced in June by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). It has since languished in the Judiciary Committee.
Read more investigations at the Center for Public Integrity.