All cooled off: As Congress convenes, former colleagues will soon be calling from K Street

Seven years after President George W. Bush signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) into law and then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., declared it to be “the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate,” a joint analysis by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics suggests the effort may have misfired.

Logo of open eye over the name Center for Responsive Politics Open
This report is a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics.

A key provision of the bill reined in lobbying by members of Congress, their top staffers and other key government officials who vault from their federal posts directly into the influence industry. The idea was to limit their ability to “cash in” immediately on their insider knowledge by lobbying their former colleagues. The lobbying restrictions, which vary depending on an individual’s government position, are lifted after a set period of time.

But the shackles, even while they’re on, are more spaghetti than steel. Of the 104 former congressional members and staffers whose “cooling off” period ends during the first session of the 114th Congress, which opens today, 29 are already in government relations, “public affairs” or serve as counsel at a firm that lobbies. And 13 of those are even registered as lobbyists already, working to shape policy in Congress or the executive branch on behalf of paying clients.

The Unbanned: Class of 2015

To view this table in a larger window, click here.1

Among former senators whose lobbying restrictions end this week, one already has been serving as a board member of a Fortune 500 financial company; another is president of a politically aggressive think tank with a strong lobbying shop; one serves as senior counsel for two firms whose clients include top corporations, defense contractors and foreign governments; another is with a law firm whose client roster includes Microsoft, the National Football League and an arm of the Teamsters union. None of the four senators has registered to lobby.

A picture of K Street and Capitol Hill shaking hands.
Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation

The many loopholes limiting who can lobby whom in Washington — and whether that lobbying must be disclosed to the public — make a hunk of Swiss cheese look like the Berlin Wall. With its patchwork of post-government lobbying restrictions, the section of the HLOGA that’s ambitiously titled “closing the revolving door,” in fact, does anything but. Some have argued that the law, which Sunlight supported, actually fostered a culture of shadow lobbying.

Members of Congress and senior staffers are prohibited from making lobbying contacts or communications with former colleagues for a time after leaving their government post. For senators, the period is two years, for House members, one. Senior Capitol Hill staffers can go ahead and start lobbying right away — as long as they wait a year before contacting colleagues in their former office or committee. Even for ex-lawmakers, there’s a huge amount of wiggle room. According to House ethics guidelines, the law permits former members to “aid or advise clients (other than foreign governments or foreign political parties) concerning how to lobby Congress” as long as they don’t do the lobbying themselves.

Welcome to Influence 2.0, a new lobbying culture populated largely by:

  • Lobbyists in waiting: Because there’s no ban on the background and other work that supports lobbying efforts, no ban on registering as a lobbyist and no ban on forming a lobbying firm, lawmakers and staffers are free to join lobbying shops or hang out their own shingles even while they are in their cooling off period. A recent report in The Hill newspaper touted the formation of a new lobbying firm by aides to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and an aide to former Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, complete with what sounded like an endorsement by Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a member of the House GOP leadership team.
  • Shadow lobbyists: A number of former lawmakers and Hill staffers never bother to register as lobbyists at all, even after their cooling off period has ended and even though they hold key posts in organizations engaged in what to most laypersons looks like lobbying. Prime examples include former Sen. Chris Dodd, president of the Motion Picture Association of America; former Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; and former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who has worked for a number of firms that lobby — and recently announced he’s forming his own lobbying shop, even though he has never registered to lobby.

This is not a new phenomenon. The Center for Responsive Politics’ revolving door database shows hundreds of individuals who have passed between the public sector and K Street. Many firms trumpet their connections to the corridors of power. HillStaffer, for example, a bipartisan lobbying firm made up of Hill veterans, entices prospective clients by “providing access to a vast bipartisan network of former Capitol Hill staffers and senior federal Agency officials” according to its website. And Covington & Burling LLP openly touts its former congressional members, staffers and even an ex-cabinet secretary.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, says that he pushed for a ban on all lobbying activity during the cooling-off period when Congress was drafting HLOGA but that Democratic chairs of House committees threatened to kill the entire bill unless restrictions were weakened. Holman calls the resulting patchwork “woefully inadequate,” adding: “It just doesn’t work.”

But the incoming president of the Association of Government Relations Professionals, James Hickey, thinks the law’s emphasis on lobbying contacts rather than all lobbying activity is well placed. “Information can be gleaned from many different sources,” argued Hickey, a former Republican Hill staffer, “but the relationships are what make this town work.”

Attempts to slow down the revolving door have seen flickers of interest in recent years, but have gone nowhere in Congress. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., made headlines for the Close the Revolving Door Act, which would have permanently banned former members from lobbying Congress.

The bill died in committee.

For now, public policy in Washington will continue to be influenced by players like some of those we’ve highlighted from our study:

Former members of Congress

Kent Conrad

head and shoulder shot of Kent Conrad, white male with light brown hair, wire spectacles in suitcoat
Former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via GitHub)

Conrad, a former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, can lobby without constraint only as of Friday. But for the last two years since he retired from Congress, the North Dakota Democrat has been one of 10 members of the board of Genworth Financial, a Fortune 500 insurance company.

It’s a part-time job but a remunerative one: According to the company’s most recent proxy statement, directors are paid an annual retainer of $190,000 — 40 percent in cash and the remainder in deferred stock.

Richmond-based Genworth survived a near-death experience during the 2008 economic meltdown but has recently been feeling heat from investors — apparently because the firm underestimated the longevity of recipients of its long-term health care policies.

Since the late 1980s, Genworth has spent more than $40 million lobbying Congress and some $4.5 million on state and federal campaign contributions.

This year, the company reported lobbying Congress on Dodd-Frank implementation, long term insurance and bankruptcy law, among other things. More transparent than most companies, Genworth maintains a public webpage detailing its political contributions and connections.

Jim DeMint

The South Carolina Republican iconoclast has been outplaying insiders at their own game for years.

Head and shoulders shot of former Sen. Jim DeMint, white male with brown hair, in suitcoat
Former Sen. Jim DeMint (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via GitHub)

As a member of the Senate in 2008, DeMint established his own PAC, Senate Conservatives Fund, to support like-minded fiscal conservatives. The group helped to engineer primary upsets of several candidates backed by leaders of his own party. But after DeMint-backed firebrands cost the GOP several Senate seats in 2010, DeMint promised to avoid targeting his own party’s incumbents.

By 2012, however, all bets were off. First, DeMint spun off Senate Conservatives Action, a super PAC that could raise and spend in unlimited amounts while keeping him at arms length. Then, he abruptly quit his Senate seat to join the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy group with its own lobbying arm. His political machine went right back on the intraparty attack, taking on, among others, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

DeMint told National Journal recently that he’s eager to get back to rubbing shoulders with senators now that his cooling-off period is over — it ended New Year’s Day — but members of Congress already don’t feel he’s ever been on ice. In 2013, a number told Politico that they saw DeMint as the force behind the lobbying campaigns of Heritage Action, the Heritage Foundation’s political arm. Since registering as a lobbying group in 2010, Heritage Action has reported spending more than $1 million trying to influence Congress.

Kay Bailey Hutchison

Head and shoulders shot of Kay Bailey Hutchison, white female with blonde hair wearing a white dress, gold earrings and lipstick
Former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via GitHub)

The Texas Republican became a free agent on Jan. 2. But ever since a month after her departure from the Senate two years ago, she’s been a senior counsel at Bracewell Giuliani, a lobbying powerhouse whose clients include energy companies and defense contractors — the reason, no doubt, BG’s website trumpets Hutchison’s tenure on congressional committees with jurisdictions over their interests.

Six months after leaving the Senate, Hutchison also joined the International Advisory Board of public affairs behemoth Fleishman Hillard. On its website, the firm advertises that its blue-chip team of IAB members “provides clients with hands-on counsel.” Those clients have included foreign governments, such as Japan, Turkey and Nigeria, as well as major U.S. corporations including AT&T, Proctor and Gamble, Hyatt and ConAgra.

Jon Kyl

When he left the Senate, Kyl was No. 2 in the Republican leadership, had powerful perches at both the Finance and Judiciary committees and a reputation for doing the hard work to get legislation through Congress. In 2010, Time magazine listed the Arizonan among the 100 most influential people in the world; Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote the encomium, praising his “encyclopedic knowledge of domestic and foreign policy.”

Head and shoulders shot of Jon Kyl, white male with greying hair in suitcoat and red tie
Former Sen. Jon Kyl (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via GitHub)

Two months after his final term ended, Kyl joined D.C. law and lobbying powerhouse Covington & Burling, which quoted McConnell’s words in announcing his hire. Kyl, who became eligible to contact his old colleagues on behalf of clients Friday, has not registered as a lobbyist, though many of his co-workers in the firm’s government affairs practice have.

Among them are Bill Wichterman, a former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. After joining Covington & Burling, Wichterman lobbied on behalf of the NFL for legislation to enforce the Federal Wire Act’s ban on Internet gambling, then joined the Bush administration where he played a role in implementing it. The firm highlights its successful lobbying for the NFL on its website; unmentioned is the role Wichterman played in the Bush White House or that the Senate sponsor of the bill was Kyl.

According to the firm, Kyl has been advising corporate clients. But in an interview with Politico, Kyl said he couldn’t wait to jump back in the game with both feet: “From my perspective, it will be just good to go back and visit with folks,” Kyl said. “I had a good relationship with Leader [Mitch] McConnell, and in that capacity we worked a lot with Speaker [John] Boehner. I’m really looking forward to getting back on the Hill.” Which companies benefit from his advice is unknown, but the firm represents a wide variety of clients ranging from online retailer to Chinese autoparts maker Wanxiang Group.

Former congressional staffers

Jeff Dobrozsi

In September, Apple Inc. hired Dobrozsi, long-time chief of staff for Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., to lobby House Republicans. Dobrozsi had also worked for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, before Boehner became House Speaker. As a former member of Boustany’s senior staff, Dobrozsi is not permitted to lobby his former boss or his staff for one year, but he can lobby other House members and staffers.

On Apple’s lobbying disclosure forms, Dobrozsi is listed as advocating on the company’s behalf on corporate and international tax reform. One of the top items on Apple’s tax agenda in 2014 was the tax extenders bill that was approved in the waning days of the Congress. Indeed, Apple has been held up as the poster company for one of the tax breaks within, the so-called “look-thru” rule, which allows it and other high tech companies to shift income to countries with lower tax rates. Guess who introduced a bill in April to make the “look-thru” rule permanent? Dobrozsi’s then-boss, Boustany.

Jake Menefee

Menefee joined Marathon Petroleum as manager of federal government affairs in March 2014. Before that, he served as deputy chief of staff for Rep. James Renacci, R-Ohio. Renacci serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax matters — an important connection for Marathon.

Among the issues that Menefee is lobbying on, for example, is helping the company oppose repeal of an accounting method known as LIFO, “last in, first out,” which allows companies to count the most recently purchased inventory as having been used first. LIFO helps companies minimize taxes in the face of rising prices, and is used heavily by the petroleum industry. LIFO repeal has been proposed by President Barack Obama as a way of capturing more revenue. Menefee is also helping represent Marathon on the issue of master limited partnerships (MLP Structure), which Marathon has taken advantage of and which greatly reduces corporate taxes, as well as a comprehensive tax overhaul in general.

Menefee is also joining efforts to lobby for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would benefit Marathon. Renacci is a strong supporter.

Alexandra Sollberger

After some five years on the Hill, most recently working as communications director for two key committees, the House Small Business Committee and the House Education & the Work Force Committee, Sollberger was hired by the Podesta Group.

There she serves as a Republican lobbyist in a firm known for its deep Democratic connections; her official bio notes that she has “strong relationships with House Republican leaders,” which will come in handy now that the GOP has strengthened its lead in the House.

Currently her sole client is Google. Lobbying disclosure forms say that she is working on patent legislation, cybersecurity and privacy issues, among others. As a member of the Coalition for Patent Fairness, Google has been pushing hard for a patent overhaul that had gained ground on both sides of the aisle but then faltered in the last Congress. The company has taken some heat for lobbying on privacy bills that would ease restrictions on sharing of personal data between corporations and the government.

Michele Varnhagen

As Labor Policy Director for Democrats on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Varnhagen worked closely with its then-top-ranking Democrat, George Miller of California. In 2012, she was considered for the position of assistant secretary at the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration.

She’s now a registered lobbyist at the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), the mammoth seniors’ advocacy group with a membership base in the tens of millions. It’s most well known for advocating for the protection of Social Security and Medicare, but those are just two prongs of a multifaceted policy agenda focused on services and benefits that affect seniors the most. The most recent lobbying disclosure from AARP shows the group lobbied on everything from the Affordable Care Act, to access to mental health services, to housing programs for seniors.

The Education and Workforce Committee recently reached a bipartisan agreement on multiemployer pension reform, which ultimately cleared the House.

Mary Springer

In October 2013, Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., signed on as an original co-sponsor of the National Defense Authorization Act — not a big surprise since he’s a member of the House Armed Services Committee that helped produce the giant bill. As chairman of the subcommittee on readiness, Wittman and his staff played key roles in shepherding the bill through Congress. Just days after the bill was signed into law in late December 2013 by President Obama, Wittman’s chief-of-staff, Springer, decamped from his office to join DRS Technologies, becoming director of legislative affairs for the defense contractor.

Immediately registering as a lobbyist, Springer reported she continued to work on behalf of her new employer on the legislation she’d been involved with crafting on behalf of her old employer.

Before working for Wittman, Springer was legislative director for his predecessor, Rep. Jo Ann Davis. While working for Davis, Springer earned a master’s degree from the U.S. Naval War College. Both Davis and Wittman have specialized in military issues, serving on the Armed Services Committee. Since he took office in 2007 Wittman has developed close ties with the defense industry — his campaign committee collected more than $221,000 from the defense sector in the 2014 cycle alone, almost 20 percent of all of his campaign fundraising.

Springer’s new employer has also developed a friendly relationship with Wittman. In the 2014 cycle, Wittman received $8,500 in PAC donations from DRS Technologies’ corporate PAC — $4,500 of which went to Wittman’s campaign after Springer took over the company’s legislative affairs shop.

E. Ray Beeman

Beeman is not a stranger to the revolving door — this is actually the second time he’s left the Hill for work in private practice. From 2011 until August 2014, Beeman was tax counsel and senior advisor on tax reform to the House Ways and Means Committee. In November, Beeman was hired to be a principal in the tax department of the powerhouse accounting firm Ernst & Young.

Ernst & Young’s own announcement of Beeman’s hiring trumpeted his work preparing the Tax Reform Act of 2014, the Republican Party’s major piece of legislation on taxes in the 113th Congress and the signature piece of legislation for outgoing Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. Beeman was also involved with developing “discussion drafts related to international tax, financial products and pass-throughs,” Ernst & Young’s announcement noted.

Prior to his most recent stint shaping tax law on Capitol Hill, Beeman was a partner with lobbying firm Venable LLP. While a registered lobbyist for Venable, Beeman represented major clients like Chrysler, Lockheed Martin and Marriott. Beeman joined Venable in 2005, after four years as counsel for the Joint Taxation Committee, the special select committee that coordinates tax policy between the House and Senate.

As a committee staffer, Beeman won’t be eligible to lobby his old colleagues on Ways and Means until fall 2014. But he will be able to advise clients and colleagues on tax policy. And even before he can return to lobby his former co-workers, his move will make the already close relationship between Ernst & Young and the Way and Means committee even cozier. In the 2014 cycle, Ernst & Young’s corporate PAC and employees contributed $298,000 to members of the committee.

Thomas McLemore

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, saluted McLemore, the departing staff director of its Defense subcommittee, and said he hoped the hard working 13-year congressional aide would find more time in his new job to spend time with is family. Given the amount of cyber security funds stuffed into the recently passed Cromnibus, McLemore, now a lobbyist at Northrop Grumman focusing on, among other things, expanding the aerospace giant’s virtual defense business, won’t be leaving the office anytime soon.

The Cromnibus includes $28 million in cyber security funding for the Departments of Agriculture and $95 million for Commerce. The Pentagon has made cyber security a priority, routing $5 billion in funding to address online threats. And with the recent hacking of Sony, lawmakers are likely to pile more dollars into cyber security efforts in the future.

Northrop Grumman has already tapped into some of that funding: In 2012, the company won a $189 million contract to beef up security for Defense and intelligence agencies. McLemore, who was staff director for the House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee as well, will focus on the legislative side of things, according to the company, where his “extensive experience” in Congress will “serve him well.” And his new employer.

Michael Ward

When TechNet announced the hiring of Michael Ward as vice president in charge of its federal policy and government relations portfolio, it included testimonials from two members of the 113th Congress. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, praised his former staffer as “a seasoned professional on Capitol Hill with deep ties to the House Republican majority.”

An organization of CEOs of technology-focused companies that include Apple, Google, Amgen, Oracle and Comcast, among others, TechNet pushes for the tech industry’s position on issues that include cybersecurity, STEM education funding, changes in immigration policy for highly skilled workers and trade policy that promotes “global innovation policy.” Ward spent 14 years working for several House lawmakers, including Reps. Todd Rokita, who’s on the Committee on Education and the Workforce (well-placed for lobbying on STEM issues), and Rogers.

TechNet bills itself as “the technology industry’s largest and most aggressive fundraising organization and most active supporter of candidates and elected officials on both sides of the aisle,” and says it offers members “unparalleled access to the leading decision makers in Congress, the Administration and state governments.”

1Table Methodology: To populate our table we relied on the House Clerk’s post-employment notifications and verifiable sources on the whereabouts of the former congressional employees. When we could not find a reliable source, we marked that individual’s job status as “unknown.” This study did not tackle the task of tracking former employees from the executive branch. (Back to top)