The Doors Revolve Again

With Republicans extending and tightening their grip on Capitol Hill this year, you might imagine their friends on K Street are now cashing in. You’d be right. And it’s not a matter of just having more open doors in the office buildings that surround the Capitol: an awful lot of lobbyists are taking over the machinery itself by taking staff jobs, per this report from The Nation‘s Lee Fang:

Until a few weeks ago, Joel Leftwich was a senior lobbyist for the largest food and beverage company in the United States. During his tenure at PepsiCo—maker of Cheetos, Lay’s potato chips and, of course, Pepsi-Cola—the company had played a leading role in efforts to beat back local soda taxes and ensure that junk food remained available in schools….

As the newly appointed staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee, now under GOP control, Leftwich will have wide sway over the law that funds school lunches, which is up for reauthorization this year. PepsiCo can rest easier, confident that the guidelines already in place are unlikely to be strengthened—and may be weakened instead. Leftwich’s new boss, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who took over the Agriculture Committee gavel in January, has set his sights on dialing back school lunch nutrition requirements, which he has called “Big Brother government that’s out of control.”

While all eyes were on the changing of the guard in Congress as Republicans seized control of the US Senate in January, there was an equally profound change taking place among Capitol Hill staff, as many GOP lawmakers handed over the keys to corporate lobbyists like Leftwich.

“We’ve seen a dramatic uptick in K Street moving into congressional staff positions since the Citizens United decision,” says Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s expert on lobbying and ethics. House Speaker John Boehner, he notes, has “encouraged new members to employ lobbyists on their personal and committee staff.”

On almost any big issue coming up for debate during the final two years of the Obama administration—surveillance, trade, healthcare, entitlements, tax reform, climate change—corporate lobbyists will now be attempting to influence their own former colleagues, whose salaries are now covered by US taxpayers.

The new staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, Jeff Shockey, comes to the Hill after working as a lobbyist for many of the country’s leading intelligence-agency contractors, including General Dynamics, Boeing and, just last year, Academi, the firm formerly known as Blackwater. The House Oversight Committee, a key investigative body, will now have a staff director named Sean McLaughlin, a former corporate lobbyist who spent the past three years as a principal at the Podesta Group. Tom Chapman, who earned compensation worth $1,531,453 in 2014 as vice president of government affairs for US Airways, will now earn considerably less as part of the counsel staff for the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, which oversees his former employer. And as Congress takes up tax reform, one of the latest hires to the Joint Committee on Taxation is Ben Gross, who spent more than a decade as international tax director for PricewaterhouseCoopers, a firm that specializes in helping corporations avoid American taxes.

According to Fang, a particularly important K Street victory occurred when House Majority Whip Steve Scalise survived horrendous publicity over a speech he once made to a white supremacist group.

Scalise is beloved by Washington’s army of influence-peddlers for his loyalty to the Beltway’s lobbyist elite. In his previous position as chair of the Republican Study Committee, Scalise welcomed the “K Street community” at special business-outreach events attended by representatives of such major firms as Halliburton, MasterCard, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman. The news that Scalise would move up the leadership ladder was celebrated by Koch Industries lobbyists, who threw a tony wine-tasting party featuring “pinots from Oregon and the central coast of California.” Soon after ascending to his new post, Scalise shocked many by having a registered lobbyist, John Feehery, sit in as applicants interviewed for jobs.

There’s a lot more in Fang’s report, including a careful notation that Republicans are not the only ones in Congress relying on former lobbyists as top staffers, though they do seem to be especially proud of it. You may wonder why these people are willing to give up very big salaries and expense accounts for a stint in the cramped offices and long hours of a congressional staffer; career ambitions usually run in the opposite direction (and I’m sure a lot of these newly minted congressional power brokers have an earlier stint of public employment before being promoted to K Street). Well, the revolving door never stops turning, and I’m sure many of the staffers Fang is talking about are confidently looking forward to a return to the private sector before long with scalps on their belt and much higher compensation.

It’s enough to make you wonder if Republicans are going to crank up the “K Street Project” (brilliantly explained by Nick Confessore at WaMo back in 2003) again to ensure that the lobbying shops maintain the maximum number of jobs for loyal GOPers who can get the requisite training before moving back to Congress and/or “cash in” for good. I fear it’s no longer even necessary.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.