Lawmakers who left office at the end of the last Congress have begun to register as lobbyists, proving the limits of a cooling-off period that was established by a 2007 ethics law.
While recently departed members are banned from lobbying staff or lawmakers in the House or Senate for a set period, there are no restrictions on lobbying the executive branch. Former lawmakers are also allowed to register to lobby at the state level.
Watchdog groups lobbied hard to make the cooling-off period as comprehensive as possible during the debate over the ethics law.
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said she isn’t “the least bit surprised” that ex-lawmakers are still quick to register as lobbyists.
“Signing up to lobby is a lucrative means of staying in the game,” McGehee said. “Unfortunately, it is on the all-too-rare occasion, however, where you find them putting their contacts and experience to work for nonprofits or the public interest.”
Former Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), for example, has registered to lobby despite being in the middle of the one-year cooling-off period for former House members.
Since January, Buyer has been lobbying for McKesson Corp., a San Francisco-based health information technology company, according to lobbying disclosure records. Buyer’s former chief of staff, Mike Copher, is also at the firm and is registered to lobby for T-Mobile.
Buyer said in a statement to The Hill that he would only lobby federal agencies for McKesson.
“The Steve Buyer Group LLC understands its obligations and restrictions pursuant to the law and also supports full disclosure,” Buyer said.
Former Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) is another former member who was joined the lobbying game. He has registered to lobby for several clients at his new firm, The Majority Group, which he co-founded with former Rep. Charles Djou (R-Hawaii) and others.
According to lobbying disclosure records, Minnick is lobbying for NumbersUSA, a group that opposes comprehensive immigration reform; the government of Shoshone County, Idaho; and NRS, an outdoor gear manufacturer and wholesaler based in Moscow, Idaho. Minnick’s former chief of staff, Robert Ellsworth, is lobbying with him for all three clients.
Minnick did not return messages asking for comment on this story.
Other former lawmakers have registered to lobby state governments since leaving Capitol Hill.
Having formed the Delahunt Group, former Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) has registered to lobby the state government in Massachusetts, according to state lobbying disclosure records. His first client is the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose interests he will represent “at the state and federal level,” according to a March 10 press release from the tribe.
Mark Forest, Delahunt’s former chief of staff, is executive director of the firm. He said the former congressman is abiding by the cooling-off period.
“Those are very important provisions, no doubt about it. We are very cognizant of those restrictions,” Forest said.
He added that lobbying would only be one service that the firm offers.
“[Delahunt’s] knowledge of the process over the years has been widely sought after,” Forest said. “Lobbying will be only a small part of what we will do.”
Despite the cooling-off periods, former lawmakers who have registered to lobby are well within the law. Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who advises clients on ethics issues, said the former lawmakers are doing nothing wrong as long as their lobbying sticks to the executive branch or to state government.
“There’s no restriction on registering at the state level. And there’s no restriction on registering at the federal level if you just plan to lobby the executive branch,” Gross said. “However, when it comes to the legislative branch, the restrictions are serious and prevent contact with lawmakers and their staff during the cooling-off period.”
Former House members cannot lobby either chamber of Congress for a year after leaving Capitol Hill. For ex-senators, the lobbying ban lasts two years.
Federal authorities take enforcement of the congressional cooling-off period seriously. Doug Hampton, a former aide to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), was charged with breaking the lobbying ban last month.
More than two dozen members of the 111th Congress have joined a law or lobby firm. But unlike Buyer, Delahunt and Minnick, many told The Hill that they would not register to lobby during their cooling-off period or even after it ends.
“No, I will not lobby,” former Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), once the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said when his hiring at Husch Blackwell was announced last month.
“I’m a country lawyer. I started out that way. I look forward to going back to that,” Skelton said.
Ex-lawmakers are highly prized, especially centrist Blue Dog Democrats. About a third of the lawmakers from the last Congress who have joined law and lobby firms so far were once part of that House Democratic coalition.
Chris Jones, a headhunter for government-relations jobs, said ex-lawmakers bring a certain prestige to the firms they join. That helps bring in new clients and new revenue.
“It’s the established brand and name of a recognized member of Congress,” said Jones, managing partner at CapitolWorks. “It’s their relationships that they still have in Congress as well as in the White House and their ability to bring in business and bridge the gap to the other side of the aisle.”
The revolving door continues to spin, but it has left one former congressman “quietly sad” about the moves to K Street. Former Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) said he does not plan to lobby, since he wants public service to be separate from a moneymaking venture.
“Public service should be about public service, and making money should be a very separate part of your life. And the higher the level that you rise to in public service, the more careful you should be with that separation,” Foster said.