Revolving Door Spins Anew as Ex-Lawmakers Join Lobby Firms

Former Senator Robert Bennett
Robert F. Bennett, pictured here when he was a senator from Utah. Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

The decor of former Senator Robert Bennett’s new office underscores his experience: a framed copy of an appropriations bill he shepherded into law and the pen then-President George W. Bush used to sign it, an award for presiding over the Senate for 100 hours in a single session, and a shofar mounted on a base thanking him for his support of Israel.

Bennett, a Utah Republican who joined the lawyer-lobbying firm of Arent Fox LLP, is part of the latest crop of ex-lawmakers putting their background to work for those seeking help from the federal government.

Rules enacted in 2007 by a Democratic Congress haven’t slowed the revolving door linking Capitol Hill to nearby lobbying offices. Even as they must wait one to two years before attempting to directly influence former colleagues, ex-lawmakers can immediately plot strategy, offer advice and help their new clients navigate both Congress and federal agencies.

Bennett, 77, said his firm’s clients “will benefit from me being able to sit down with them and say, ‘Yes, you have a grief that’s legitimate,’ or ‘No, you don’t.’ They have many lobbyists who are able to take the outcome of that strategic advice and counseling up to the Hill.”

At least 17 ex-lawmakers who left office in January have joined law firms, trade associations or other lobbying enterprises, or set up their own consultancies, according to tracking by Bloomberg News and the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group.

Movie Group

Former Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, earlier this month was named chief executive officer of the Washington-based Motion Picture Association of America, the trade association for Hollywood studios. Two freshmen House members defeated last November for re-election, Democrat Walt Minnick of Idaho and Republican Charles Djou of Hawaii, formed their own firm.

“When racehorses retire, they go to stud; when members of Congress retire, they go to K Street,” said Rogan Kersh, an associate dean at New York University, referring to the location of many Washington lobbying firms.

The migration hasn’t slowed in the wake of Tea Party-fueled anger against Congress and the budget deficit. And the intensified push on Capitol Hill to cut federal spending could amplify the clout of ex-lawmakers as groups fight over slices of a diminishing budget pie, said Nels Olson, head of the Washington office of Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruitment firm based in Los Angeles.

“This is a time when you need to make sure your interests are represented,” Olson said. Former lawmakers have “relationships that can be advantageous.”

Tea Party View

Tea Party activists, who helped propel a House Republican plan to cut $61 billion from the 2011 budget, say they don’t care who lobbies, just that current members don’t listen to pleas for programs.

“We’re watching” lawmakers “and we want them to resist that lure,” said Mark Meckler, a co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots.

“Citizen activists are going to outweigh any lobbyist in Washington,” said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, a Washington-based advocacy organization headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican. “At the end of the day, who’s going to get you elected?”

Political Casualty

Bennett, an 18-year Senate member, was one of the Tea Party’s highest-profile political casualties. The insurgents fueled the drive to deny him re-nomination last May at Utah’s Republican convention where he was criticized for, among other things, his votes for the 2008 bank bailout and a Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003 that increased the deficit.

He was joined at Arent Fox by former Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who chose not to seek re-election last year.

The firm was paid $1.9 million to lobby in 2010 by clients including Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc., based in Corona, California, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Both Bennett and Dorgan served on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which writes the government’s annual spending bills.

Lawmakers-turned-lobbyists say their new profession is a logical extension of their career in public service.

“You see government as a way to solve problems,” said ex-Representative Jim Walsh, a New York Republican now at K&L Gates LLP. “When you leave the elected position, you still want to solve problems. It’s continuing the role you enjoy.”

Health-Care Bill

Former Representative Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat and one-time member of the House Ways and Means Committee who lost re-election last year, said he will continue to work on the health-care bill he supported in Congress at his new employer, Alston & Bird LLP. The firm was paid $11.4 million last year by clients including Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based CVS Caremark Corp. and Birmingham, Alabama-based HealthSouth Corp.

As lawmakers look to make changes to the 2010 law, which expands coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans, Pomeroy intends to help clients be part of the debate.

“There are two ironclad realities,” Pomeroy said of the measure. “One, it will not be repealed in total and two, it will not be implemented as passed. In between that has to be worked out.”

Executive Branch

The restrictions former lawmakers must adhere to in contacting ex-colleagues on Capitol Hill don’t apply to dealings with the government’s executive branch. And their expertise in navigating the bureaucracy can pay immediate dividends to lobbying firms. “I have a 1½ inch-thick spreadsheet laying out where all the funds are in federal agencies,” said Rich Gold, head of the public policy and regulation practice group at Holland & Knight LLP.

As for the anti-Washington fervor, Bennett predicted it could prove transient.

“It will depend entirely on what the economy does and what people feel about the future two years from now,” Bennett said. “If the unemployment rate gets down below 8 percent and the deficit shrinks back down, if people see a sense that maybe things are not out of control, you will see this current attitude of, ‘We hate Washington and everything connected to it,’ disappear.”

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