Watchdog groups: Ex-lawmakers find easy ways around lobbying curb

Now a former U.S. Senator form South Carolina, Jim DeMint in 2011
Now a former U.S. Senator form South Carolina, Jim DeMint in 2011 MCT

Under a law that took effect seven years ago, retired U.S. senators such as Republicans Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas were constrained from lobbying their former congressional colleagues for two years after leaving office.

But congressional watchdogs contend that these and numerous other members have capitalized on a long-standing loophole in federal ethics laws to join a seemingly endless migration into the lucrative world of lobbying even during the proscribed period. They participate extensively in the lobbying process and just avoid speaking directly to their ex-colleagues about those subjects, the watchdogs say.

Much of the job of lobbying entails advance work and strategizing, and veteran senators can easily advise underlings on what to say during visits to their former colleagues, said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. The group sought tighter restrictions when the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act was crafted, but its appeals got nowhere in the House of Representatives, he said.

As a result, the law is “easily evaded by simply doing lobbying activity without actually making a lobbying contact,” Holman said.

Of 104 former members of Congress or top congressional aides whose “cooling off” periods are due to lapse during the first session of the new Congress, 29 already hold jobs in government relations, public affairs or serve as counsel at firms that lobby, according to a new joint study by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation.

Thirteen of the 29 are even registered as lobbyists, which they can be so long as they don’t contact ex-colleagues for two years (one year in the House), the groups found.

“The cooling-off period is the critical time in which a lawmaker still has very, very close connections with his colleagues in Congress,” Holman said. “After two years it may start fading somewhat. Within those first two years, it’s almost as if they’ve never left Congress.”

Hutchison serves as counsel to the firm of Bracewell and Giuliani, co-founded by former Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York. The firm has a sizable portfolio of lobbying clients, from Chicken of the Sea International to Chesapeake Energy Corp. What work Hutchison does behind the scenes is not clear.

A spokeswoman for the firm did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

After leaving the Senate two years ago, former Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut joined the rapidly expanding law firm of Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman as senior counsel. In June 2013, the firm announced that Clarine Nardi Riddle, a former Connecticut attorney general who served as Lieberman’s chief of staff for a decade before he retired from the Senate, would be joining the firm to lead a new lobbying practice.

Riddle is a registered lobbyist. Lieberman is not.

DeMint left Congress to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center that frequently circulates papers and policy blueprints among Washington decision makers. The job now pays him over $637,000 per year, according to the foundation’s federal tax return.

Holman maintained that DeMint and other ex-senators in similar roles, such as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, should register as lobbyists.

But Heritage spokesman Wesley Denton said the foundation is a “a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan research and educational institution” and its affiliated lobbying arm is Heritage for Action, an entirely separate grass-roots lobbying entity that has two registered lobbyists.

Daschle, who left Congress in 2004, exemplifies another loophole, said Holman. He has never registered as a lobbyist while working with the law firm DLA Piper, saying he spends less than 20 percent of his time lobbying, one registration threshold.

“Yet we see his name show up over and over in the White House logs, so we know he’s lobbying,” Holman said.

Last October, Daschle and the law firm of Baker Donelson announced that he’d be joining that firm to lead a new lobbying shop, The Daschle Group.

Johanna Burkett, a spokeswoman for Baker Donelson, said Daschle “provides strategic counsel to a number of leading companies, but does not and has never lobbied.”

The new unit, she said, includes several “advisers” who have registered. Will Daschle also register?

“It’s impossible to predict the future,” Burkett said, “but Sen. Daschle will always make professional decisions based on what is best for his clients.”