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.

When John Monagan, a Democrat who represented Waterbury, Conn., in the House of Representatives, lost his seat in 1972, he became a lobbyist. It wasn't really what he wanted. He'd looked into becoming a lecturer at Dartmouth or Yale, but they wouldn't have him. Reviving his law practice lacked appeal because, he writes in his memoir, A Pleasant Institution, "I would have had to start at the beginning … writing contracts and drawing warranty deeds and mortgages and developing business." His wife and children, having lived in and around Washington for 13 years, weren't keen to move. So, he opened a Washington office for a New York law firm.

Monagan didn't much like the work. Clients, he felt, had "an unreal picture of how the Congress worked and were prey to some who made outlandish claims to power and influence which were without foundation." Although he had plenty of House connections himself, "it was not easy for me to dramatize them." Overall,

I did not relish the demands of the lobbying process—the continual attendance, the buttering-up, the extended and unpredictable hours of activity. … My committees had not been those such as Ways and Means and Commerce where "business was done" and although [while in Congress] I had been familiar with and cooperative with business representatives, I had not tried to develop intimate associations which could be turned into paying connections. At length, after eight years, I determined to call it a day. …

Monagan's sensibility was more rarified than that of his peers—he went on to write a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes and carried on a lengthy correspondence with the novelist Anthony Powell—but his melancholy about settling into a lobbying job is nonetheless representative of a mindset that prevailed on Capitol Hill through most of the last century. Public service as a sitting member of Congress was ennobling. Trading influence as a lobbyist for moneyed interests, on the other hand, was a little bit demeaning.

How old-fashioned it all sounds today! As Chatterbox noted Monday, Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Mary Bono, R-Calif., brazenly serenaded recording-industry lobbyist Hilary Rosen last week with a plea for her job. The "hire-us" rap song that Tauzin and Bono recorded for Rosen's going-away party ("You still don't think we're the ones for the job?/ Yo, we're politicians. We were born to hobnob") was very clearly a joke. But, as Monagan pointed out to Chatterbox, it's not the sort of joke that House members from his era would likely have made.

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And how much of a joke was it, anyway? Bono has been less than Shermanesque in denying that she wants to succeed Rosen. "I am not actively seeking the job," Bono assured Variety after her spokeswoman described the music-lobbying gig as Bono's "ideal job." (Bono is the widow of pop-star-turned-congressman Sonny Bono, and she recently co-founded the House Intellectual Property Promotion and Piracy Prevention Caucus. For Bono, "intellectual property" is no abstraction since she gets paid every time a disc jockey spins "I Got You, Babe.") Tauzin, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce committee, is more firm in denying his rumored desire, which is to succeed Jack Valenti as president of the Motion Picture Association of America. But Variety reported yesterday that Tauzin remains Hollywood's top choice. If Tauzin really didn't want the job, wouldn't he make Valenti take his name out of the running?

That two relatively young members of Congress facing no serious threat of electoral defeat would envy the life of a lobbyist represents a massive paradigm shift in Washington's status hierarchy. Having long ago reconciled themselves to being lobbyists' financial inferiors, House members now find themselves lobbyists' social inferiors. How could this perversion of the natural order come to pass? Blame it on three people: Richard Nixon, Newt Gingrich, and Ralph Nader.

Nixon was at the center of the Watergate scandal, one of whose ramifications was 1974's Federal Election Campaign Act. This placed limits on political contributions and established the Federal Election Commission, which collects and maintains data on campaign receipts and outlays. The 1974 law clearly made national elections, which until then had often operated on a cash basis, less corrupt, and it minimized the amount of individual influence a fat cat could buy. But it also made the lives of House members more unpleasant by complicating the way they collect political contributions.

Previously, a representative could rely on a few wealthy patrons to bankroll his campaigns. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, entered Congress as the protégé of George and Herman Brown, who directed Johnson to secure federal contracts for their construction firm, Brown and Root. Once limits were imposed on contributions by individuals and political action committees, it became harder for one donor to "own" a representative the way the Browns had owned Johnson. But because each contribution was now smaller, House members had to devote more and more of their time to raising money. Today, fund-raising is a grind for all elected officials in Washington, but it's an especially dreary treadmill for representatives because they must run every two years.

At the same time that campaign reform made being a congressman less enjoyable on a daily basis, it expanded vastly the power of Washington's lobbyists. No longer mere messenger boys for individual wealthy patrons, they became powers unto themselves as House members (and other Washington politicians) subcontracted to them the business of raising money. Increasingly, lobbyists came to represent entire industries rather than individual companies. The most successful lobbyists extended their fund-raising reach beyond those they represented and solicited contributions from the larger community of prominent wealthy people. In addition to rendering themselves more valuable financially, this mingling with the nation's elites raised the lobbyists' social status. By banning previously unrestricted "soft money" contributions to the national parties, last year's McCain-Feingold campaign finance law will further accelerate this trend.

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.

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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