On Sunday, the Washington Post’s David S. Hilzenrath reported a rather high profile example of on all too common Washington phenomenon: the former government official who, out of office, cashes in on his expertise. Hilzenrath reported on William Cohen, who spent two dozen years in Congress representing Maine (the first six in the House, the balance in the Senate), then served as Bill Clinton’s second-term Secretary of Defense. Cohen, of course, is by no means an isolated case.
The practice of former government officials, who understand how their old agencies work, have longstanding professional relationships and in some cases personal friendships with their old colleagues, and the ability to influence government decisions to the benefit of narrow special interests (their clients) has been an ongoing problem that Congress has made little attempt to address. In 1996, Congress banned the top negotiators of U.S. international trade policy, the U.S. Trade Representative and the Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, from ever representing foreign governments in trade negotiations; however, all other officials in that office are free to sell their services to the highest bidder on leaving office.
In 2005, the Center for Public Integrity (my former employer) found that more than 2,200 former government officials, including 209 members of Congress, had gone through the revolving door, and commanding billions of dollars in reported lobbying fees:
Former government employee lobbyists, who routinely work in concert with other lobbyists, appear on almost 80,000 lobbying disclosure forms amounting to $4.7 billion—a quarter of self-reported lobbying expenditures and two thirds of lobbying firm fees reported for the period between 1998 and mid-2004.
The Post’s story on Cohen–from the wheeling and dealing on the purchase of house to the defense contractors who have sought to benefit from his connections and expertise–is well worth reading; it is also well worth remembering that Cohen is merely the tip of the iceberg.