For many congressmen and senators, Congress is something like the Eagles' song "Hotel California": Members check out, but they never really leave.
With the 108th Congress now passed into history, another Washington tradition is playing out this month as departing members of Congress, rather than returning home, trade their years of service for big paychecks from lobbying groups, investment banks and law firms.
Public service should be its own reward. Not the idea of cashing in on the relationships they build while in government service.
Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., is sifting among offers. Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., will join one of Washington's top lobbying firms. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who helped write the prescription drug law that Congress passed last year, will become president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a powerful drug-industry trade association.
Critics call the moves exemplary of what's wrong with a Washington culture of insiders that mainly benefits deep-pocketed special interests; others say lobbying is an important part of congressional accountability to society's various interests and that former lawmakers bring needed expertise.
Former members of Congress decide to stick around for many reasons beyond money: They've made friends here. Their kids are in school here. And for many, it's hard to let go of the heady Washington life.
"I met with Dick Cheney yesterday and we talked about the Ukraine presidential election," said Jack Buechner, a former Missouri Republican congressman who lobbied for a few years and now runs a Washington-area nonprofit. "That's not a conversation you're going to have at the Silver Dollar diner in Maplewood."
To be sure, one of the biggest pulls is the big pay. A typical member of Congress makes $158,100 a year (party leaders and the speaker of the House of Representatives earn more). As lobbyists and rainmakers for banks and law firms, they can make millions. Tauzin, for instance, is said to be receiving a salary of $2 million.
The rules say you can't lobby your former colleagues for one year after you leave office. Even so, 272 former members of Congress have registered as lobbyists since 1995, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
Among the more famous to make the move in recent years is former Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole, who lobbies as Bob Dole Enterprises and is special counsel with Alston & Bird, an Atlanta-based law firm. Dole's former Kansas colleague, longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman, recently landed one of Washington's most prestigious lobbying gigs as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents Hollywood's major studios.
Others have taken lower-profile but still-lucrative jobs around town, opening doors and providing counsel, but not lobbying directly. That's the course that Gephardt and ousted Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, are considering.
Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said such a revolving door led to a system in which members of Congress could be making policy decisions not on what they see as the public good, but on self-interest.
That concern raised its head earlier this year in the case of U.S. Rep. James Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican. Greenwood announced last summer that he wouldn't seek a seventh term and would instead become the president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade association. The job pays $650,000, plus potential bonuses of $200,000.
Right before Greenwood announced that he'd take the job, a subcommittee he chaired postponed a hearing it had scheduled on drug safety, an issue of keen interest to Greenwood's new employer.
Greenwood said then that there was no connection between the canceled hearing and his decision to take the lobbying job.
"Those are the kinds of situations that raise questions," Boyle said. "Maybe there was nothing fishy going on. But the perception fosters cynicism."
In many cases, lobbyists write language that's inserted directly into legislation, and in all cases they help guide how legislation is framed and interpreted.
"Being able to influence 10 votes in the Senate or 25 votes in the House can be worth billions," said Alex Knott of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.
Lobbying is a big and important business in Washington, so big that it dwarfs what many see as the main money stream in American politics, campaign contributions.
The Center for Public Integrity estimates that between 1998 and mid-2004, campaign contributions totaled $4.7 billion. During the same period, lobbying expenditures totaled nearly $12 billion.
For example, Kansas-based Sprint Corp. donated a little more than $513,000 to federal candidates for office in the 2003-2004 election cycle through Oct. 25, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington group that tracks campaign contributions.
During 2002 and 2003, Sprint spent more than $15 million on federal lobbying efforts, according to federal reports.
Defenders of the system point out that the founding fathers meant for the people to petition Congress, and lobbyists simply fill that role for every imaginable side of an issue.
"It makes sense that people who understand the legislative process, lived that life and know the players are experts," said one former lawmaker who's now a lobbyist and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Just as in any other field, you want to get somebody who knows what they're doing. That happens to be former members."
Besides knowledge, former members offer access. They can go on the floors of their former chambers and the member cloakrooms off the floors, use the gyms and even keep parking privileges on the Capitol grounds - all places where they can buttonhole former colleagues. It's not unusual around Washington to see long-expired parking passes from long-past Congresses on the dashboards of expensive cars, a sign to all that membership once and always has its privileges.
While some say stories of former members exploiting their access are largely apocryphal, access is still useful to have.
"Anyone who doesn't think there are certain advantages to being in the steam room?" Buechner said. "Two people naked sitting next to each other ... access always helps."
Others say public servants sacrifice financially for years while in office, so there's nothing wrong with them making money afterward.
Gephardt, for example, easily could have earned in the mid-six figures for years had he made partner in a sizable St. Louis law firm and never entered public life. But he was elected to Congress in 1976 and spent 28 years in the House. He and his wife suffered financial setbacks in the stock-market decline earlier this decade, and are still paying off college-student loans for the youngest of their three children.
Now, people close to Gephardt say, he deserves to make a little money. He doesn't plan to become a lobbyist, aides say, but there's little doubt that among the assets he brings to any potential employer is the long list of contacts he has in Washington.
Gephardt, who's 63, also plans to found the Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service at Washington University in St. Louis, and may teach.
Even those who eschew lobbying bring in big money where they land, becoming marquee names for investment banks or law firms hoping to attract new clients.
Critics say even that's a problem.
"Public service should be its own reward," Boyle said. "Not the idea of cashing in on the relationships they build while in government service."
Stearns reports for The Kansas City Star.
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