Banning former members of Congress from lobbying won’t fix the revolving door

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ted Cruz are cut from very different ideological cloth, but both enjoy “outsider” personas and occasional clashes with party leaders. They’ve formed a pact to work on legislation that would bar former members of Congress from working as lobbyists.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ted Cruz are cut from very different ideological cloth, but both enjoy “outsider” personas and occasional clashes with party leaders. They’ve formed a pact to work on legislation that would bar former members of Congress from working as lobbyists.

Here’s something I don’t say often: on this point, I AGREE with @AOC Indeed, I have long called for a LIFETIME BAN on former Members of Congress becoming lobbyists. The Swamp would hate it, but perhaps a chance for some bipartisan cooperation? https://t.co/jPW0xkH2Yy

— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 30, 2019

It’s a nice feel-good story.

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good idea.

The most unseemly aspects of “the revolving door” can’t effectively be curtailed by a lobbying ban, and attempting to craft an airtight one will distract reform energy from more important concerns. The real strength of moneyed interests in Congress derives from America’s unfortunate habit of starving its public institutions of resources. Give Congress more money to operate and pay members of Congress more and we’ll go a lot further to curb the power of special interests.

A lobbying ban is narrower than it sounds

The problem with curbs on members of Congress becoming lobbyists is that the actual meaning of lobbyist is considerably narrower and more technical than you might think. The member who takes a job with a K Street lobbying firm serves as a metonymy for the whole phenomenon of the revolving door and the idea that members may be corruptly serving special interests while in office in order to cash in once they leave office.

But if you ban lobbying jobs, the same corruption can sneak through in other channels.

Consider, for example, Florida state Sen. Joe Negron, who was a staunch ally of the private prison industry while in office and then landed a cushy job as general counsel for a major private prison company.

Before Joe Negron left the Florida Senate last year, he helped steer an additional $6.9 million to private prison giant GEO Group.

Now Negron is making $400,000 annually as their general counsel. https://t.co/up0RV0IzqP

— POLITICO Florida (@politicofl) March 15, 2019

A job in a general counsel’s office isn’t lobbying. Neither is a gig on a company’s “public policy communications” team. Or a job in a law firm’s government affairs practice. Or a “strategic consulting” job.

If a company wants to reward a former political ally with a lucrative job, a lobbying ban won’t stop that, and it’s honestly difficult to imagine what kind of rule would.

We should spend more on Congress

One of the main reasons special interest groups exert so much influence over the legislative process isn’t just that they have money. They control another valuable resource — actual information about the issue that can help members understand the implications of various proposals.

In theory, of course, members of Congress are supposed to have their own resources at their disposal — resources like professional staff and the Congressional Research Service.

Actual staff sizes, however, are very modest. And pay, especially at the senior levels, is both on the low side and tending to decline, as documented by Emory University’s Josh McCrain.

Banning former members of Congress from lobbying won’t fix the revolving door

It’s a pretty bad situation. Current staff rely on a network of ex-members and former senior staffers for information and to help them think through issues. These informal advisers are on the payroll of special interest groups.

One realistic way to remedy this is to equip offices with their own core of experienced legislative analysts — whether in the form of personal staff, committee and subcommittee staff, or expert bodies like the Congressional Budget Office. The legislative branch of government should be able to rely on a deep bench of in-house knowledge. It would make a big difference, and while it would cost money, the sums involved would be tiny relative to the scale of Congress’s responsibilities.

Pay Congress more

By the same token, members of Congress themselves should be paid more to narrow the economic gap between serving members and ex-members. Congressional pay has been declining in inflation-adjusted terms since the mid-1960s, even while incomes for other professional occupations have risen.

Today, a House member earns $174,000 a year — a bit less than the average dentist and quite a bit less than the average doctor — which is certainly not a poverty wage but also not exactly an elite salary. Newly elected members are typically 50-something with professional backgrounds in law and business who are earning less in Congress than what they were previously making. Financially, it makes more sense to join the outside-pressure game and make a lot more money than staying inside.

Last but by no means least, providing a reasonable amount of public funding for campaigns so that members are not spending a huge share of their day working the phones and courting donors would be a double win for anti-corruption — giving legislators more time to do their jobs, and reducing the amount of privileged access garnered by well-heeled interest groups.

Just preventing ex-members from working as lobbyists, by contrast, would mostly impair the legitimate functions of the lobbying trade.

Lobbyists are people too

It’s worth considering whose influence-buying efforts would really be most eroded by a ban on hiring ex-members as lobbyists.

As we’ve seen, it would still be very possible in a post-ban world for well-heeled interests to offer well-paying jobs to former members of Congress. And the CEO of a big company like Facebook, Boeing, JPMorgan, Exxon, or McDonald’s isn’t going to have that much trouble getting a member of Congress to answer his phone call no matter who is running his lobbying shop. It’s actually smaller groups with less money to spend that might really be able to benefit from the personal connections of a former member of Congress in a unique and valuable way.

It would probably be a contrarian step too far to suggest that a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress would be actively harmful to good-government causes. Most likely it would make no difference. But putting time and energy into a pointless, misleading solution is likely to breed cynicism about all of politics.

People who want to reduce special interests’ stranglehold on the system should focus on real reforms that would make a difference and not chase shiny demagogic objects.

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