When Congress was taking up a new farm bill a few years ago, olive oil producers in California and other states drafted language that would require imported oil to meet the same quality standards that apply to domestic.
California produces 99 percent of the country’s olive oil, but the American variety only represents 3 percent of total U.S. consumption. For domestic producers, it was an obvious way remove a competitive disadvantage.
But the language never made it into the final legislation President Barack Obama signed in February.
The American Olive Oil Producers Association paid a lobbying firm $70,000, no match for the $440,000 the importers spent to defeat the provision. The House of Representatives voted to strip the language from the bill on a vote of 343 to 81.
“They have greater financial resources to pull from,” Kimberly Houlding, the domestic group’s executive director, said of the importers.
They also had one of Washington’s top lobbyists on their side: Vic Fazio, a former Democratic congressman from California who represented the Sacramento area from 1979 to 1999. Other California lawmakers-turned-Washington lobbyists include Republicans Dan Lungren and John Doolittle. High-profile retirements this year could add to the ranks.
Fazio has enjoyed a productive second Washington career at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a K Street powerhouse that generates more revenue than any other lobbying shop in town. He has a long list of clients, including AT&T, PG&E, Burger King, Wall Street firms and Indian tribes.
In interview, Fazio said that when you join a lobbying firm, you’re paid to represent your clients, much the same as a defense lawyer.
“It’s not a matter of your personal preference at that point,” he said.
It’s what former members of Congress can expect when they move to K Street, a shorthand expression for the capital’s lobbying industry.
“I think they understand going in they may find themselves working for groups or issues they were not associated with,” said Steve Billet, director of the Legislative Affairs Program at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. “It may be a reality of their new life.”
Lobbying is a logical next step for former members of Congress: They’re well connected; know their way around Capitol Hill and the federal bureaucracy; and can offer their experience to corporations, trade associations, nonprofits, foreign governments and a long list of industries which have business with Washington.
Retiring California Republican Buck McKeon, for instance, would likely be a valuable catch for a firm whose client list includes defense contractors. McKeon is the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
But “Henry Waxman isn’t going to work for big tobacco,” Billet said of the retiring 20-term liberal southern California Democrat and outspoken opponent of the industry.
Some restrictions apply. Outgoing members of the House are barred from lobbying their former colleagues directly for a year. The Senate requires a two-year “cooling-off” period. Former lawmakers can, however, provide strategic advice to lobbying firms, and some continue to do so without formally registering as lobbyists.
According to the online disclosure database LegiStorm, more than 400 former members of Congress have registered as lobbyists since 2000. They draw the attention. But they’re vastly outnumbered by former congressional aides. Almost 7,000 have gone to K Street in the past 15 years, according to LegiStorm.
“It’s really a world that’s dominated by the expertise of former staff,” Fazio said.
Lobbying can be considerably more lucrative than the $174,000 annual salary that members of Congress earn and the $30,000 starting pay for a staffer.
“They are essentially selling their rolodexes,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a left-leaning government watchdog group. “It is apparently very profitable.”
Others, however, had different reasons.
Lungren wanted to check a few items off his bucket list after losing re-election in 2012. After traveling with his wife, taking singing lessons, spending time with two new grandchildren and getting a knee replacement, he formed a small lobbying firm with Brian Lopina, a one-time chief of staff to former Republican Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma.
“It’s more of a low-key thing,” Lungren said in an interview. “I’m about as far from K Street as you can be.”
According to federal filings, they have one client: Fairfax 2015, a group that’s bringing the World Police and Fire Games, an Olympic-style competition for police officers and firefighters, to the Washington area next summer. The California Police Athletics Federation established the games in 1985. It’s expected to attract 12,000 competitors from 70 countries to the region.
Lungren is using his experience as a former member of Congress and a former state attorney general to build support for the games in the law enforcement community and from relevant federal departments, including Justice, Defense and Homeland Security.
“The only way I could help was to be an official lobbyist,” Lungren said.
Some go into lobbying out of necessity. Doolittle didn’t have a new job lined up in recession-battered California when he left Congress in early 2009. The ex-Republican lawmaker, who represented parts of suburban Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada foothills since 1991, thought about joining a big lobbying firm. Instead, he formed his own, working out of his house in Northern Virginia.
“You don’t have to share your fees with anybody,” he said in an interview.
Two groups of general contractors, the North State Building Industry Association and the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange, hired him to advocate for the Water Resources Development Act. It authorized more than $1 billion for the completion of a levee-improvement project for Sacramento’s flood-prone Natomas Basin.
Aside from providing a greater degree of flood protection for 100,000 residents, the project’s completion would benefit builders by ending a moratorium on new construction in the floodplain.
Doolittle had worked on the issue for years in Congress. He knew committee chairmen, House leadership and even a good portion of the Senate. He’d worked closely with Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the two committee chiefs, most heavily involved in crafting new water legislation.
Many newer members of Congress weren’t around the last time a similar bill came up in the chamber in 2007 and weren’t familiar with its purpose or importance. After a three-year effort to introduce the bill to new members, Doolittle got exactly what he wanted. The final version passed both chambers overwhelmingly.
“In this hyperpartisan era, it was quite frankly a major accomplishment,” he said. “It was a very satisfying continuation of my public service.”
Though lobbying is an important part of how Washington works, it has a negative public perception. That’s due in part to a scandal a decade ago involving Jack Abramoff, a top lobbyist who’d plied members of Congress with football tickets, expensive meals and resort vacations. He pleaded guilty to the charges and served four years in prison.
The scandal even touched Doolittle’s office. Kevin Ring, a former legislative aide to the congressman and an Abramoff associate, served four years in prison. The Justice Department investigated Doolittle and his wife, but they were never charged.
Dennis Cardoza, a Central Valley Democrat who left Congress for K Street in 2012, said that it wasn’t fair for lobbyists to be tarred by the transgressions of a few.
“There’s always going to be people who do things that are inappropriate,” he said. “The profession can and should be one that is conducted in an honorable way.”
Lawmakers-turned-lobbyists might miss the day-to-day interaction at the Capitol, but that doesn’t mean they’re longing to return to office. Besides defeat, many left the hill out of frustration over an increasingly partisan atmosphere.
“The idea of going back to Congress is not in the cards,” Lungren said.
Fazio said though he still holds public service in high regard, he doesn’t miss “spinning wheels” on Capitol Hill.
“The only thing I really miss are the constituents,” he said.