Booted by Voters? Still in Hot Demand: 5 Places Former Pols Go After Leaving Congress

Luckily for those who won't be returning to Congress -- the tally is 75 -- their power and influence is more sought after than ever, and many "fail up." For them, the days of being lobbied are over. Now some will make the classic switch, joining the ranks of the lobbyists of K Street.
11/18/2014 06:37 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2015
capitol hill building
capitol hill building

In Washington, power never dies. Luckily for those who won't be returning to Congress -- the tally is 75 -- their power and influence is more sought after than ever, and many "fail up." For them, the days of being lobbied are over. Now some will make the classic switch, joining the ranks of the lobbyists of K Street, trying to shape the legislation of their former colleagues.

But many others will follow a more circuitous path, with insidious consequences for accountability.

As I write in Unaccountable, with the rise of new media, corporate power flowing in directions never before seen, and influential legal and public relations firms, a whole new breed of Washington player has emerged, where ambiguity is crucial to both success and deniability. Gridlock, which tightened even further election night, means that the influence game has spread far beyond Capitol Hill, where so little actual legislation is getting passed. So where do these displaced politicians go? Voters gave them the boot, but various new power centers will be quick to snap them and their connections up. Even those who haven't lost their bid are choosing to decamp to these new power centers.

Thus, in recent years, the evolution of elected official to lobbyist has become far less straightforward. The revolving door still exists, but instead of shuttling players from lawmaking to lobbying, the door now has a half dozen or more exit and entry points of influence. Here are five places that Democrats and Republicans leaving Congress (as well as their top staff) might go when their term in office is over.

1. Think Tanks: After being elected to nine terms in Congress, Jane Harman abruptly ended her tenure by joining a growing number of former elected officials who have joined or become the head of think tanks. Many think tanks, no longer bastions of wonkiness and long-term studies, operate like partisan fighters, armed with rapid-response teams and quickly assembled reports. As the wall between traditional research organizations and journalistic outlets diminishes, think tanks play an important role in influencing policy. Look no further than the Center for a New American Security, which advocated for the "surge" in Afghanistan back in 2009, to find an example of the extraordinary, and often unaccountable influence these organizations have.

Even popular Senators like Jim DeMint, who joined the Heritage Foundation back in 2013, have found ways to influence policy without voting on legislation. DeMint described his transition, saying that it is exciting to "translate those policy papers into real-life demonstrations of things that work" in a Washington Post interview when he left office. His salary at Heritage? It exploded - perhaps 8-fold - from his Senate pay. Interestingly, DeMint made it clear upon leaving that he believed in term limits, with no intention of being the now-detested career politician. This sounds admirable, but DeMint is still influencing policy, but in ways that are less transparent than during his time as a Senator.

2. Public Relations: After Senators Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg, both past Chairmen of the Senate Budget Committee, left office, they joined the world's biggest public relations firm, Edelman, as "strategic advisors," newly created roles that "provide public policy advice and communications counsel to a wide variety of corporate, association and nonprofit clients" according to a company press release.

Conrad and Gregg aren't alone. Today, a tweet or well-timed press release can be just as potent as a lobbyist visit to Capitol Hill. As we mentioned, with the next Congress likely to be even more gridlocked than this one, there simply are not that many bills about which to lobby. Firms sometimes go straight to the public with their client's legislative message, but in ways the public might not be able to decipher. Consider the former Congressman who pens an op-ed but doesn't disclose that he works for a P.R. firm. With clients ranging from big business to foreign governments to special interest groups, former officials are much sought after by public relations and consulting firms.

3. Media Mogul: What could persuade Congressman Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to give up one of the more powerful positions on Capitol Hill?

A talk radio show, to begin in January.

It might seem strange, but the ability to shape public perception through the media is luring officials away from office -- even when they don't lose elections. And just as importantly, having a talk radio show or appearing as a contributor on Fox News or MSNBC serves as a powerful platform to raise your brand -- just ask Rick Santorum. After losing his Senate seat in 2006, he became a Fox News contributor, re-establishing his brand and influencing public opinion at the same time.

4. Shadow Lobbyist: Where a former elected official might have previously sought the title of "lobbyist" to gain influence, today he is much more likely to take a title like "strategist" or "government affairs" or "public sector" specialist to add panache to his resume. There's been a trend of top power brokers simply choosing not to register.

He might spread his client list wide enough so that he merely scrapes up against lobbying law restrictions. He might just take the risk that enforcement is too weak to stop him. Or simply provide his underlings with the relevant information and contacts, allowing him to keep his hands technically "clean."

Most of these players say that their "lobbying" responsibilities encompass just a fraction of their duties, and the lines between "lobbying" and "policy meetings" are blurry at best. Yet, this type of influence is au courant for former elected officials.

5. The combination: for most politicians who lost re-election on November 4, odds are that they will take a combination of these roles. For them, the ability to react to opportunities as they come up and expand their networks lends them significant influence, while leaving them dangerously unaccountable about whose interests they are serving. A typical case is Scott Brown, who after losing his reelection bid in 2012, became a contributor at Fox News, and a counsel at the top law firm Nixon Peabody. An even better example is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, soon after leaving office, used his prestige to create a highly lucrative influence brand dubbed "Blair, Inc." A tangle of business, politics, and philanthropy, these interests overlap and raise the question of what hat Blair is wearing, when.

It's not that former politicians shouldn't capitalize on their particular knowledge. It's that when they take on a combination of roles, as many of them do and will, their actions in one role might influence another without public knowledge that these interactions are occurring. If a former politician goes on a cable news network and presents a point of view, how can we know whether he's providing his expertise or plying his own agenda?