As I built what became the nation’s largest individual lobbying practice -- with 40 employees at its peak -- I remained the only lobbyist in the firm who had not previously worked on Capitol Hill. Former Congress members and staff are everywhere on K Street, the lair of the lobbying world. Why? Because they have access.
That access was crucial to our lobbying efforts. If we couldn’t get in the door, we couldn’t present our client’s case to decision makers. Hill veterans also had expertise. They knew the Byzantine legislative process and how to make it work for clients. Access and expertise: That’s how the great lobbying machines work.
But that’s not all.
I had many arrows in my lobbyist quiver to endear our firm to Congress: two fancy Washington restaurants that became virtual cafeterias for congressional staff, the best seats to every sporting event and concert in town, private planes at the ready to whisk members and staff to exotic locations, millions of dollars in campaign contributions ready for distribution. We had it all. But even with these corrupting gifts, nothing beat the revolving door.
During my time lobbying, I found that the vast majority of congressional staff I encountered wanted to get a job on K Street. And why not? Their jobs on the Hill were only as secure as their boss’s re-election prospects. Even then, they were never certain when they would encounter an office purge. The other side of the rainbow -- K Street -- was heavenly. Salaries were much higher. Perks were abundant. And lobbying is a growth industry, no matter which party is in office. As young staff members got married and had children, making the jump to K Street was often on their minds.
As I cultivated relationships on the Hill, or as the firm’s lobbyists transformed their congressional friends into champions for our clients, I noticed the staff members craved a job on K Street far more than a fancy meal or a Washington Redskins ticket.
Most staff were fiercely loyal to their boss and to the institution they served. But, once they thought there was a chance to join our firm sometime down the line, they switched teams -- psychologically first, and then in conduct. Understanding this, we would drop hints about the gilded life that awaited them on K Street, or share jokes with them about our future together as colleagues.
Staff members who thought they might be hired by our firm inevitably began acting as if they were already working for us. They seized the initiative to do our bidding. Sometimes, they even exceeded the lobbyists’ wishes in an effort to win plaudits. From that moment, they were no longer working for their particular member of Congress. They were working for us. They would alert us to any inside information we needed to serve our clients. They would quash efforts to harm our clients, instead seeding appropriations and other benefits for them. I emphasize: They were working for us.
Our situation was not unique.
During my years as a lobbyist, I saw scores of congressional staff members become the willing vassals of K Street firms before soon decamping for K Street employment themselves. It was a dirty little secret. And it is a source of major corruption in Congress.
There is only one cure for this disease: a lifetime ban on members and staff lobbying Congress or associating in any way with for-profit lobbying efforts. That seems draconian, no doubt. The current law provides a cooling off period for members and staff when joining K Street. The problem is that the cooling off period is a joke.
Here’s how it works. “Senator Smith” leaves Capitol Hill and joins the “Samson Lobbying Firm.” He can’t lobby the Senate for two years. But, he can make contact with his former colleagues. He can call them and introduce them to his new lobbying partners, stressing that although he cannot lobby, they can. His former colleagues get the joke, but the joke’s on us.
Because the vast majority of lobbyists start on the Hill, this employment advantage is widely exploited. It cannot be slowed with a cooling off period. These folks are human beings, not machines -- and human beings are susceptible to corruption and bribery. I should know: I was knee-deep in both. Eliminating the revolving door between Congress and K Street is not the only reform we need to eliminate corruption in our political system. But unless we sever the link between serving the public and cashing in, no other reform will matter.
(Jack Abramoff is the author of “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.” He spent three years in federal prison for corruption and tax evasion. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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