Why Congressmen Want To Be Lobbyists
Tauzin and Bono were sort of kidding, and sort of not.
This past November, there was a nice little retirement party for Rep. Bob Borski, D-Pa., and a few other departing members of the House Transportation Committee. Borski had represented Philadelphia in Congress for 20 years. The going-away fete was held in the Transportation Committee room. In attendance were staff members for both the committee and the House representatives who sat on it; the members themselves; representatives of the transportation industry; and one U.S. senator, Arlen Specter, R-Pa. Warm memories were shared about Borski's years of public service. After awhile, the die-hards drifted back to Borski's office in the Rayburn building to savor the view of the Capitol and listen to a record of "My Way" sung by Frank Sinatra. "It was not a big, fancy, quartet-in-the-corner kind of thing," recalls Andrea Whiting, who was Borski's chief of staff.
Last week, there was a raucous goodbye party for Hilary Rosen, departing chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America. The bash was held at Charlie Palmer's Steak House on Capitol Hill. Among those offering video testimonials to Rosen's 17-year advocacy on behalf of record companies and pop stars were former President Bill Clinton ("You are one of Washington's finest") and Sen. Hillary Clinton; Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee ("I for one could always sleep better at nights knowing that Hilary was representing the top recording artists in the industry"); Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle ("We're going miss your incredible leadership on Capitol Hill"); former Vice President Al Gore; Jack Oliver, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee; Washington superlawyer/agent Bob Barnett; NBC News reporter Lisa Myers; Internet gossip Matt Drudge; Crossfire co-hosts Tucker Carlson and James Carville; CBS radio host Laura Ingraham; and Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, author of a new biography of Benjamin Franklin, former chairman of CNN, and former managing editor of Time magazine. How the pope squirmed out of this social obligation Chatterbox cannot say.
Perhaps it's not surprising that a million-dollar-a-year lobbyist for a wealthy and glamorous industry group would receive such sumptuous tributes. It probably helps that Rosen is among the few Washington lobbyists who are both willing and able to raise big money for the Democrats (though that doesn't explain why Republicans tossed garlands, too). Just for the sake of argument, let's concede that Rosen bestrides the intellectual-property debate like a Colossus. Still, Rosen was … a lobbyist, while Borski was a voting member of the most powerful legislative body in the world. What explains the discrepancy between their send-offs? Why did Rosen's retirement warrant coverage as far away as Great Britain while Borski's only got a few lines in the Hill, a trade paper for Congress?
Because while the rest of us weren't looking, Washington's status ladder underwent an alarming change. Where once members of Congress—even its lower chamber—stood many rungs above Washington's pleaders-for-hire, today it is the lobbyist who stands many rungs above the lowly House member. (For now, at least, senators remain above both House members and lobbyists in the Washington hierarchy.)
Just a generation ago, the only two reasons even a low-ranking member might leave the House of Representatives were if he lost an election or if he retired. It was not a foregone conclusion that he would stay in Washington, but if he did, and he took a lobbying job, the appropriate feeling to have toward him was mild pity. Sure, he'd be paid more. But the best years of his life would be behind him. Inside his comfortable office, he'd gaze out the window and daydream about his glory days in government.
Today, it's different. House members actually leave Congress voluntarily, sometimes before serving out their terms, to become lobbyists. It isn't cause to feel sorry for them. It's usually just assumed they will stay in Washington, and as lobbyists, they will stand at the top of the heap. Today, members of Congress gaze out their windows and daydream about becoming lobbyists.
If you think Chatterbox is exaggerating, click here and scroll down to the rap song Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Mary Bono, R-Calif., performed, by video, at Rosen's party. "We know the House rules don't allow us to apply for the job," Tauzin began, "but there is nothing wrong with auditioning for it." The two then rapped a song that began, "Who wants the job of Hilary Rosen?/ How 'bout the dream team of Bono and Tauzin?"
After this minstrelsy turned up in Lloyd Grove's gossip column in the Washington Post, Tauzin and Bono both quickly let it be known that they didn't really want Rosen's job, that they loved representing their constituents, and that they fully intended to run for re-election next year. Of course, the rap song had been a gag. But it was a gag that would never have been made 40 years ago. "The feeling was that it was a somewhat elevated position that you were privileged to be in," recalls John Monagan, a Democratic representative from Connecticut from 1959 to 1972. Monagan says he can't imagine any House member back then risking his or her reputation with such "nonsense." It's not that House members didn't get outrageously silly in those days; then, as now, institutions like the Gridiron and Alfalfa clubs provided a ready outlet for members of Congress to dress up in goofy clothes and whoop it up. But a joke that turned on a House member wanting to be a lobbyist would never have been attempted because it would have been too weird to be funny. Indeed, it would have been almost cruel, like a captain of industry joking that the job he really wanted was his secretary's.
According to scuttlebutt and news reports, Tauzin really doesn't want Rosen's job; he has his eye on Jack Valenti's job running the Motion Picture Association of America (from which Valenti is expected to soon retire). Bono, it is thought, really does covet Rosen's job. Both Tauzin and Bono deny all this, but amid all the speculation, nobody's bothered to suggest that such longing by two House members with safe seats is at all peculiar.
What has changed? Why do House members aspire to be lobbyists? Chatterbox will enunciate the reasons, and explain how all this relates to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's efforts to Republicanize Washington's lobbying industry, tomorrow.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.