Congress: A training ground for future lobbyists

Old promises are forgotten and replaced by a new passion for wealth and power.

Before election to the U.S. Congress, all Minnesota politicians promise to work full time for the voters back home. But once seduced by Capitol Hill’s corrupt culture, old promises are forgotten and replaced by a new passion for wealth and power. Congress is now a springboard for aspiring $500 an hour Washington power brokers, officially known as lobbyists.

According to a recent study by Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, since 1990 these members of Congress from Minnesota have become Washington lobbyists: Reps. Arlen Erdahl, Richard Michael Nolan, Gerry Sikorski and Vin Weber, and Sens. David Durenberger and Rod Grams.

The study, “Congressional Revolving Doors: The Journey from Congress to K Street,” found that since 1998, 50 percent of departing U.S. senators and 42 percent of all departing U.S. representatives who were eligible to become lobbyists have done so. The eligibility count excluded members elected from one house of Congress to another and members taking jobs in the executive branch. Congress has become a tax-supported finishing school for get-rich-quick Washington lobbyists.

Once elected, representatives and senators can go in one of two directions. They can remain loyal to the folks who sent them to Washington and work to make sure Minnesotans get a fair shake on Capitol Hill, or they can put their own personal interests, and those of special interests, ahead of the voters’ intersts. 

Here is how:

Pork buys votes
Once elected, members bound for K Street use your tax dollars to win future elections. This is done by “earmarking” or slipping hometown projects into federal spending bills – often for local roadways, bridges and pedestrian ways.

These “pork” projects may have no national significance, but they sure can make congressmen look good. This explains why pork projects grow faster than kudzu in Georgia. In the federal highway bill recently signed by President George W. Bush, the Minnesota congressional members added 147 such projects, costing $495 million. Nationwide, this pork-larded highway bill contains more than 6,000 – that’s right, 6,000 – earmarks, costing U.S. taxpayers about $24 billion.

Congressmen help their pals
Elected officials have the big assets of channeling tax dollars and granting favorable government breaks. By doing favors for influential groups, congressmen “buy,” at the voters’ expense, a network of pals who then show their appreciation by making large re-election campaign contributions. This network of friends becomes the client base for the congressman-turned-lobbyist.

Pals help congressmen
Washington’s K Street lobbying firms are in the business of selling government access. But here again taxpayers foot the bill for congressmen-turned-lobbyists. Each “win” for the lobbyist is almost certainly a loss for the taxpayer.

Consider the case of Robert Livingston, a Louisiana House member, who, after leaving Congress, opened his own Washington lobby shop. From 1999 to 2004, according to Congress Watch, Livingston’s firm earned $37 million from more than 100 demanding clients, including: Lockheed Martin, MCI WorldCom and Chevron Texaco, among many others.

If these clients received their money’s worth, at least $37 million in tax-funded favors were exchanged for the millions that went into Livingston’s pocket. Livingston carefully keeps his Capitol Hill network up to date. Between 2000 and 2004 he, and organizations he controls, contributed more than $500,000 to more than 100 House and Senate members up for re-election.

This well-worn revolving door corrupts the U.S. Congress, which was once a watchdog for the taxpayer. What if members of Congress spent less time feathering their own nests and more time tending to legitimate public projects? Maybe someone would have noticed that the $500,000 Congress appropriated in 1997 for the preparation of an evacuation plan for New Orleans was spent instead on a bridge across Lake Ponchartrain.

Ron Fraser writes for the DKT Liberty Project. Please send comments to [email protected]