Why congressmen envy lobbyists, Part 2.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
July 2 2003 7:19 PM

Why Congressmen Want To Be Lobbyists, Part 2

Blame Nixon, Gingrich and Nader.

(Continued from Page 1)

Hilary Rosen is perhaps the best example of how far lobbying can carry you in the 21st century. With her life partner, Elizabeth Birch, who runs the Human Rights Campaign (an organization that battles discrimination against gays), Rosen hosts political fund-raisers at their house in Chevy Chase, Washington's toniest suburb. Rosen gets quoted in TheNew Yorker. She wasinvited to debate at the Oxford Union. She'll soon start a gig as a commentator on CNBC. Such baubles are rarely dangled before mere House members.

Newt Gingrich led House Republicans to numerical supremacy, for the first time in 40 years, in 1994. The tool Gingrich used to bring about this "Republican revolution" was a document called the Contract With America. The contract included many empty promises, but one that Gingrich and the newly Republican House made good on was a pledge to "limit the terms of all committee chairs." The House rules were changed to restrict, in most cases to six years, the length of time any member may be chairman of any given committee or subcommittee.

A committee chairmanship is the real source of influence in the House, and it can take years to acquire one. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has interpreted the rule change to allow the most senior members to shift laterally from one chairmanship to another, but even so, the time restriction dilutes a chairman's ability to master his role. The most fearsome House chairmen—in recent times, think of Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who prior to Tauzin headed the Energy and Commerce committee for two decades—accumulated their power gradually. Dingell's obvious delight, toward the end, in bossing people around was not appreciated by many of those he tormented (sometimes unfairly) in oversight hearings. But it's impossible to imagine that Chairman Dingell would ever have become the subject of a rumor that he was about to jump ship to lobby for Hollywood studios.

Power abhors a vacuum. If House committee chairmen no longer rule with an iron fist, then who is left to define the terms of debate? The veteran lobbyist. Rosen lobbied for the recording industry for 17 years. Her face, not Tauzin's, became the one associated with the controversies surrounding Napster.

Ralph Nader counts, among his many betes noirs, the extravagant pay that taxpayers supposedly lavish on Congress. Opposing congressional pay raises is a popular cause in this anti-government era, and Nader and the (usually laudable) Congressional Accountability Project have flogged it for all it's worth.

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At the moment, senators and House members get paid $154,700 (you get more if you're in the top House or Senate leadership). That's hardly peanuts, but it's less (in real dollars) than House members earned a decade ago. In 1993, congressional pay was $133,600. In today's dollars, that's $164,562, or nearly $10,000 more than what congressmen actually get. Surely the political pressure brought to bear by Nader, CAP, and others represents at least part of the reason congressional paychecks have lost ground to inflation.

At the same time that members of Congress have seen their paychecks dwindle, they've enjoyed the benefits of a pretty generous retirement plan. If you've served five years, you can start collecting your pension at age 62. If you've served 20 years, you can start collecting it at age 50. Since you probably aren't going to stop working—indeed, you'll likely earn more than you made in government—departing Congress makes more financial sense than staying there. That's always been true, of course. But a pay structure in which retirement benefits are more generous than salary makes it even truer.

This last factor applies to senators just as much as it does to House members. But senators are more insulated from its demoralizing effects because membership in the Senate confers greater fame and influence *. And the Senate's six-year election cycle reduces substantially the pressure for raising campaign funds. These differences explain why senators continue to trump lobbyists in Washington's status competition, while lobbyists increasingly trump House members.

In the last and final segment of our discussion, Chatterbox will explain how this all relates to House majority leader Tom DeLay's fearsome campaign to get lobby firms to hire Republicans.

Correction, July 8: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that there is no term limit on committee chairmanships in the Senate. In fact, the Senate Republican Conference does impose on Republicans a six-year term limit similar to that imposed by the House. Senate Democrats, however, may hold chairmanships as long as their party controls the Senate, provided the arrangement meets with the approval of committee members and the Senate leadership.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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