The Revolving Door: Public Service Increasingly a Conduit to Lucrative Lobbying Careers

Capitol Building

Capitol Hill is home to the offices of 535 legislators who increasingly find themselves catering to the interests of corporate clients as the pervasive influence of K Street in politics grows. December 10, 2005 (Kate Mereand/Wikimedia Commons)

Bribes masquerading as gifts and political contributions are nothing new to Washington. In Mark Twain’s 19th century work, The Gilded Age, he delineates a step-by-step methodology for bribing members of Congress. What is novel to America’s political system is the increasingly common revolving door that connects ex-political staffers and retired politicians with lucrative careers in the lobbying industry. While political contributions and gifts remain in the arsenal of any Washington lobbyist, their effectiveness in allowing lobbyists to influence legislation has been surpassed by retired insiders making their way to K Street.

Notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff remarked in his book Capitol Punishment that the most effective way to influence a politician was to offer his/her chief of staff a lobbying job following their stint on the hill. From that point forward, not only would Abramoff have unrestricted access to a politician, but also staffers would actually go out of their way to promote his clients’ interests.

Many politicians often bite at the prospect of lucrative lobbying salaries, despite a life-long commitment to public service. In Mark Leibovich’s book, This Town, he cites a frightening statistic: “In 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Now 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do.

Consider retired Senator Judd Gregg, whose tenacious fight for transparency and ethics in the financial industry ended as soon as he left office and took a high-paying ‘consulting’ job at Goldman Sachs. More astonishing is ex-congressman Billy Tauzin, who earned nearly twenty million dollars between 2006 and 2010 as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.

Even high-profile politicians cannot always resist the temptation of lobbying salaries. Former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, who played a key role in drafting universal health care legislation, earned an annual salary of $2.1 million only a few years after his leaving the Senate. While Daschle vehemently denies working as a lobbyist, his recent employment has been with lobbying firms specializing in health care, albeit as a ‘consultant’.

It is unclear precisely what these ex-politicians are providing in exchange for their astonishingly high compensation packages. No doubt some utilize their influence on the Hill to sway current members of Congress to draft legislation that benefits their clients. There remains serious ambiguity, however, as to whether or not these politicians preemptively advanced their future employer’s interests while in office at the prospect of being duly compensated following retirement.

K Street NW at 19th Street

K Street in Washington DC is home to some of our capitol’s most prominent lobbying firms. There are currently 23 lobbyists in Washington for every member of Congress. February 24, 2005 (Erifnam/Wikimedia Commons)

This tacit collusion between elected officials and the private sector goes against the very concept of public service and the notion of a democratic process unfettered by private sector interests. While laws exist that bar ex-congressmen and senators from working in lobbying for two years after being in office, most bypass this restriction by refraining from formal registration as a lobbyist. After all, there is no law against working as a ‘consultant’.

Public service implies some form of personal sacrifice, often in the form of time and compensation. With this in mind, is it too much to ask that our public servants refrain from profiting from the private sector following their retirement from politics?

Indubitably, successfully curtailing the migration of politicians from Capitol Hill to K Street will be futile as those we have entrusted to make our laws have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. As attempts at lobbying reform continue in Congress, however, an important question remains: how do we define lobbying?

After all, the day that Congress passes a law barring ex-political staffers and politicians from working as lobbyists and consultants is the day we see an influx of political veterans working as ‘policy advisers’ with seven-figure salaries. Who knew public service could be so rewarding?

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

A Return to Hamilton and Roosevelt

Great Seal of the United States (obverse)

No image better captures the essence of conservative realism than that which graces all formal U.S. documents: the Great Seal of the United States. A united, vigorous nation, represented by the strength and grace of the bald eagle, ascends into the heavens to take its place among the nations of the Earth. Its commitment to the prudent management of power is depicted in its clutching the olive branch of diplomacy in its right claw, and in its left, the arrows of war. U.S. Government (Wikimedia Commons)

The Republican Party of 2014 is in a predicament. On the one hand, it is opposed by a lame-duck Democratic administration, many of whose policies might justifiably be described as “failed.” It is energized by massive grassroots populist waves unseen since the 1980s. And, it continues to attract some of the keenest political operators in the United States.

On the other hand, the party is below Democrats in national approval rating. In terms of legislation, it has largely behaved as the “Party of No” its critics deride it as. Perhaps most shockingly, largely due to its present deep internal divisions, the Republican Party has articulated several contradictory and rather arbitrary economic strategies, and no creative new foreign policy strategies.

This shortage of intellectual capital does not bode well for a party with such advantageous opportunities as the transition out of the “Old Blue Model Fordist” economy, the rapidly rising presence of socially conservative Hispanics in the Southwest, and the gradual commercialization of space. In each of these areas (and many others), the Republican Party could adapt its principles and policies to take advantage of present trends to better America’s future prospects; yet, in the party’s present state, it seems ever less likely that necessary reformers and insurgents will have a voice.

Currently, the GOP is internally divided, with each of its factions competing for the mantle of the legacy of Ronald Reagan. In truth, none of the various factions or leaders resembles the Gipper’s legacy either in policy or charisma. But even if any of them followed Reagan’s policy and philosophy, they could not save the Republican Party – different times call for different measures and different ways of thinking. Principles may remain the same, but policies never should.

Generally, there are two main camps struggling for control of the GOP, with innumerable interest groups and factions influencing their trajectories. In a nutshell, there are the main-line “establishment” Republicans, including John Boehner, John McCain, Chris Christie, and others occupying higher positions in Washington and elsewhere, while competing against them are the insurgent Tea Party-affiliated Republicans, including Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio, as well as many other relative newcomers to the political scene. The establishment Republicans tend to stick to the classic party line of deregulation, heavy-handed foreign policy, and moderate social conservatism; the Tea Party and the candidates it endorses tend to focus on fiscal responsibility and a cutback in the size of government. Thus, establishment Republicans are far more conciliatory towards Democrats than their Tea Party counterparts, who often brand themselves as the “true” conservatives battling a decadent national GOP establishment. Meanwhile, various subgroups, including religious social conservatives, foreign policy isolationists, and large corporate interests play prominent roles in the policymaking and discourse of the GOP, though none hold power themselves.

Theodore Roosevelt-Pach

Theodore Roosevelt. Pach Brothers (Wikimedia Commons)

The current squabbles over the true definition of “conservatism” exclude a tradition which has, for a century, been far underrepresented in American conservative discourse: the conservative realist tradition, best exemplified by Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt. This pragmatic brand of political thought has proven to be as timeless as America’s ideals themselves, as it has undergirded America’s unity as a nation and its rise to power on the world stage in most of the country’s most transformative epochs. Though its followers have never held power for more than a decade or so, its opponents have always grudgingly (or unknowingly) adopted its most basic precepts and tenets in order to maintain America’s status as a united world power. It is therefore written into America’s political DNA as firmly as the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, though in most times it remains unspoken.

The core principles of conservative realism are the same core principles any would-be powerful nation-state must follow: a commitment to internal order and unity, effective external security, and sustainable national prosperity. These are the core elements of power – the meat of politics. The ligaments holding them together, especially a healthy civil society and social trust, are highly valued and praised by conservative realists, but are not the core of conservative realist philosophy. Meanwhile, conservative realists tend to have a particular view of how the three core objectives are to be attained and preserved: a strong and unitary government (as opposed to a confederation or an extreme decentralization) in order to maintain unity and order; a prudent, pragmatic realism based on the balance of power in foreign policy to secure an advantageous security situation; and effective government regulation, and investment in infrastructure and technology, to most efficiently and lucratively manage national resources. Though most political thinkers would not oppose the three primary objectives of conservative realism, many would oppose the means by which conservative realists seek to attain them.

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbell, 1806. Washington University Law School (Wikimedia Commons)

Those following and practicing this mode of thought were effective in times of fracture and weakness, when the United States needed internal consolidation and external heft. The presidency of George Washington, and to a lesser extent that of John Adams, saw intense federal investment in infrastructure, along with unitary policies and a very pragmatic foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson and his successors, though they largely condemned such policies while out of office, invariably wound up practicing conservative realism when in office. The Jacksonian Revolution, and its subsequent weakening of the federal government and increasing regionalism in American politics, set the stage for the Civil War, regardless of Henry Clay’s neo-Hamiltonian policy proposals. Abraham Lincoln, another great nationalist, sought to save the Union by the same methods as those offered up by Alexander Hamilton decades before. America’s rise to prominence as a world power in the late 19th Century was largely due to the influence of statesmen and thinkers like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt, whose emphasis on pragmatic foreign policy and active economic involvement on the part of the federal government effectively created the America we know today. After the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the movement died down quite a bit; however, come the Second World War, conservative realists in the State and War Departments crystallized their precepts for national security strategy, while corresponding trends in government, such as the establishment of New Deal programs, rendered basic manifestations of the imperatives for united governance and economic involvement essentially unquestionable. To a certain degree, the United States has been run on conservative realist principles for the better part of its history, if only explicitly at certain points.

Cowboy 20060805173639

Cowboy in Montana, 1910. Grant-Kohrs Ranch Historic Collection, bought by the National Park Service in 1972 (Wikimedia Commons)

In most situations in which conservative realists rose to power, the might of America increased, her cohesiveness was strengthened, and she reached new levels of prosperity. Moreover, she became increasingly capable of shaping and leading the liberal international order that has graced and cursed the world with ever-expanding trade, communication, and cultural exchange. In 2014, as America’s power stagnates while powers around the world rise and anarchy beckons, nothing could be more desirable than an America united at home, pragmatic abroad, and generating sustainable wealth.

There has been ceaseless talk about governmental and party reform in American politics. Most proposals have been doomed from the start, as they either long for the improbable (the redemptive electoral success of a moderate Third Party) to the downright impossible (the elimination of money from politics). Some pragmatic solutions have been offered, but none promise more than baby steps to remedy small aspects of America’s political dysfunction.

It is time for a practical and proven solution to be considered. The only executable events that have ever shifted the course of American politics have been party realignments. (Of course wars, elections, and economic crises have done their share, but for the most part, those happen on their own, impervious to human agency.) Why not create an insurgent force within a conservative party and strive to influence policy and politics from there, as the Tea Party movement has done? The difference between the Tea Party movement and the conservative realist voice, however, is that the Tea Party enjoys widespread grassroots support, while conservative realists think in line with many in the intelligence, diplomatic, and military establishments. Such populist support as the Tea Party enjoys would be crucial for the crafting of a national strategy based on alternative principles of politics; support from the foreign policy establishment, the most avowedly conservative realist faction in government today, is an essential starting point.

And ultimately, though Democrats would assuredly be involved, the GOP is at present the party most amenable to the proposals conservative realism would demand. Change ought to start from within.

Unfortunately, no major voices in the Republican Party today voice the aforementioned philosophy. Perhaps with time, as stress builds up on the system and around the world, new voices will emerge, and the true conservative realism will again shape our nation’s destiny.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.