Living the High Life After Congress
April 7, 2015 by Michael Winship
This post first appeared on BillMoyers.com.
As the latest chapter in the curious saga of Congressman Aaron “Fly Me” Schock recently came to an end, there was an unintentionally, darkly comic moment. It happened just after the Downton Abbey fanboy announced his resignation from the House of Representatives.
In an interview, his father, Dr. Richard Schock, told a Chicago TV station, “Ten years from now, whatever he’s doing, he’ll be successful at it. I promise you that. Two years from now, he’ll be successful… if he’s not in jail.”
Now that’s a proud dad for you -- assuming my boy’s not in the slammer, he’ll be on top of the world. But Papa Doc may have a point. In fact, what do you want to bet that if Aaron Schock’s not in jail, he’ll soon be back on Capitol Hill, a success once again, pulling in an even heftier paycheck -- not as an elected official but as a privileged member of the lobbying class -- pressing the flesh, making deals, and facilitating fat campaign contributions for the GOP the same way he did while a congressman, plying the rich with concert tickets, fancy dinners and other assorted perks?
Look at former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – an even bigger Republican money magician -- defeated in a primary in his Virginia home district by an upstart who made the incumbent’s obeisance to the financial industry a central issue of his campaign. Remember The Wall Street Journal’s headline? “Eric Cantor’s Loss a Blow to Wall Street.”
Turns out it was a glancing blow at best. Eric’s back and Wall Street’s got him. As The New York Times' Mark Leibovich wrote, just weeks after his primary fiasco, Cantor was “the latest example of Washington’s upward-failing, golden-parachuted, everybody-wins calculus.”
Sure enough, September came and with it news that Cantor was joining the boutique global investment bank Moelis & Company. The Times commented when the announcement first appeared in The Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Cantor has no previous experience in high finance or investment banking. But the reason for his new job is clear: The Moelis founder Ken Moelis told the Journal that he was hiring Mr. Cantor in part for his ability to open doors -- an admission that Mr. Cantor will now be paid to trade on the influence and friendships he developed as a House leader.
As if to prove that last point, just a few weeks ago, Cantor threw a party to open the new Washington office for Moelis, and the hobnobbing fun was intense. There they all were, toasting their boy Eric: House Speaker John Boehner; the new House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy; Majority Whip Steve Scalise; Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry and chair of the House Republican Conference, Cathy McMorris Rodgers – not to mention, according to Politico.com, “a few House Democrats and a handful of GOP senators.”
A fellow former member of the Virginia congressional delegation, Tom Davis, told Politico, “Eric will find very quickly that you don’t have to be a member of Congress to be an influencer. He’s got one of the best Republican Rolodexes in the country…” To that end, Cantor already has held a meet and greet for Chris Christie in Richmond and given advice to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
This is what ex-members of Congress and their staffs do nowadays. Rarely do they follow the example of ancient Rome’s Cincinnatus and go back to the farm – or take that teaching job at the local university or join a hometown law practice. They stay in DC to reap the bountiful harvest that comes from Capitol Hill experience and good old fashioned cronyism.
As a result of November’s midterm elections and retirements, at the beginning of the year nearly 50 members of the House and a dozen senators got the old heave-ho but competition for their services within the Beltway was, as The National Law Journal reported, “hot.”
The legal newspaper observed, “Firms usually want big names from leadership of industry regulation-focused committees, but with collegial, bipartisan reputations.” Washington headhunter Ivan Adler told the paper that bidding starts at a million for a retired senator, $500,000 or more for a former House member. And three years ago, investigative journalist Lee Fang found that when they join the lobbying world, “Lawmakers increased their salary by 1,452 percent on average from the last year they were in office to the latest publicly available disclosure.”
A quick look at a few February and March editions of the congressional newspaper The Hill tells the tale:
February 24 – “Recently retired Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) is headed to K Street. Waxman Strategies, a consulting firm owned by his son Michael, announced the move on Tuesday. The veteran congressman will serve as the chairman of the firm… Waxman served 40 years in Congress, including high-profile roles on the House Energy & Commerce Committee and the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform… He will focus on clients in the healthcare, environment, energy, technology and telecommunications arenas, including helping those involved in congressional investigations.”
February 27 – “Former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) will be joining the K Street ranks at law and lobby firm Venable, a partner at the firm confirmed to The Hill on Friday. Pryor lost his Senate seat in last year’s elections after a bitter battle with Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. Immediately after, headhunters began sizing him up for potential private-sector positions.”
March 11 – “Former Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Georgia) has popped up on K Street. Law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath announced on Wednesday that he would be joining the government and regulatory affairs practice as a senior advisor… Gingrey, a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee in addition to the panel’s health subcommittee… At the firm, he will work on issues not just in the healthcare space, but also trade, education, energy and telecommunications.”
March 12 – “The former chairman of the powerful tax panel, ex-Rep. Dave Camp (R-Michigan), is the latest to join K Street. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) announced on Thursday that Camp would become a senior policy advisor within the firm's Washington national tax services practice. He retired at the end of the last congressional session, after serving 12 terms. Before his departure, however, Camp released draft legislation that would overhaul the nation's tax system.”
March 16 – “Former Rep. Tom Latham has joined a boutique consulting and lobbying firm, Hecht, Spencer & Associates, adding his name to the shop. Rebranding the firm as Hecht, Latham, Spencer & Associates, Inc., the Iowa Republican who retired at the end of the last congressional session will serve as a partner.”
Latham was chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, among other assignments. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia Republican and former House member Jack Kingston “has launched his post-Congress career at the powerhouse lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs… As an 11-term veteran and high-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, Kingston’s experience and contacts made him a sought after prize in Beltway circles.”
You get the picture: In the words of the Times’ Mark Leibovich, each of these fellows is, “in some sense, living proof of the thing that most voters loathe about Washington: the notion that membership in its political class guarantees a win-for-life lottery ticket.” He quoted these statistics from The Atlantic magazine: In 1974, three percent of retiring members became lobbyists; now it’s half of all senators and 42 percent of House members.
Legally, there is an official cooling-off period: departing senators have to wait two years to become a registered lobbyist and do business with their former colleagues; representatives a year. Some have suggested making the bans longer, perhaps as much as six years. Not a bad idea, but the reality is, many of them don’t bother registering at all, getting away with calling themselves consultants or advisers -- a lobbyist in all but name.
Certainly the money’s just as good. Take former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, also the former Senate majority leader and non-lobbyist supreme. At The Intercept, Ken Silverstein reports that in 2003, a year before he lost his bid for re-election, Daschle’s net worth was listed as between $400,000 and $1.2 million. Then he began “consulting” and presto: “During the two years prior to his failed nomination to head Health and Human Services he netted $5.2 million, mostly from healthcare, energy, private equity and telecommunications companies.” Last fall, Daschle and his wife – who’s a highly successful and wealthy DC insider herself – sold their seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom DC home for $3.25 million. And they’re building a South Carolina vacation home on land they bought for $1.3 million.
All this without Tom Daschle ever signing up as an official lobbyist (Although he has recently said he will register with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act – he’s working for the government of Taiwan).
Thus, the plutocrats continue buying government by picking up ex-members of Congress like so many players in fantasy baseball, using them to keep smashing up what’s left of both democracy and a middle class nurtured by organized labor and decent wages. “The corporate campaign created a political consensus that churns out business-friendly policies no matter which party is in power,” Ken Silverstein writes. “It also changed the nature of government employment. Fifty years ago, people came to Washington drawn by a sense of public service, however they defined it, and they often stayed in the public sector over much of their careers. Now working in government is a brief way station on the road to better things. Many of those who come to DC with little wealth leave in a position to become rich, and those who come rich are able to become richer.”
And that’s one more reason why this stinks. For not only have the monied interests captured our representatives with their campaign contributions and assorted favors, they have lassoed them in before they even leave office with the promise of massively profitable jobs when the incumbents exit. Forget about the interests of the average voter; elected officials are already thinking about the next gig and how to please the billionaires who will be signing their future paychecks. Let’s face it: a new tax break or government contract always makes a nice thank you gift.
What a breath of fresh air if a legislator’s attitude was more like the one expressed by soon-to-be-departing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Asked if he’d go into the lobbying trade, last week he told The New York Times, “I’d rather go to Singapore and have them beat me with whips.”
A worthy sentiment, but hang on. In 2013, Reid’s net worth was estimated by the Center for Responsive Politics at a little more than $4.5 million. The Washington Post estimates that, “in the last campaign cycle, lobbyists gave his political and leadership committees $1.3 million.” His sons and son-in-law have all worked in the lobbying industry. And The Hill reports, “More than two-dozen prominent K Streeters used to call Reid their boss on Capitol Hill.”
Lest we forget, after cold hard cash and influence-peddling, hypocrisy is Washington’s currency of choice.