Frank Underwood of Netflix's "House of Cards" may seem like America's most corrupt politician. He will stop at nothing, not even murder, to advance his political career. But as a political scientist, I know that real-life corruption is much more commonplace — and frankly more boring. Usually it's just a job offer.
According to Abramoff's playbook on how to gain influence in Washington, you could "own" a congressional office as soon as you said to a top staffer, "You know, when you're done working on the Hill, we'd very much like you to consider working for us."
Those magic words win access and information more readily than campaign donations. With a job offer on the table, the official or staff member is all but working for the lobbying firm, on the taxpayers' dime.
This isn't just hypothetical. Political scientist Adolfo Santos has found that public officials who have plans to become lobbyists act differently while in office from their colleagues who don't. Interestingly, they are more successful at passing the bills they introduce than officials who don't go on to be lobbyists. Does this behavior reflect their desire to please their potential future employer or something else? We can't tell. What we do know is that public officials who are no longer thinking about reelection are freed from the sanctioning power of constituents.
Of course, the law recognizes problems with the flow of public officials to lobbying firms. Current law requires a two-year waiting period before a member of
Job offers, usually with much higher salaries, lure powerful public officials and their staff away from public office.
One report found that congressional members, on average, get a 1,452% raise when they become lobbyists. And in another finding, from the Sunlight Foundation, lobbyists who list a government staff position on their resumes can command a median salary of $300,000.
Others earn more. Former Rep.
That means one can make much more from trying to influence legislation than from writing legislation. (New York Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, accused of earning millions of dollars in kickbacks, may be an exception.) And, interestingly, according to one study, former staff members can generate more revenue (and earn higher salaries) than former members of Congress.
But don't these public officials see the ethical problem of shifting allegiances from constituents to their potential future bosses? Often the shift can be so subtle that nobody notices, which reinforces an ethical obliviousness.
Of course, the timing of some hires can raise public suspicions. Take the case of John Pemberton, who was the chief of staff in the Environmental Protection Agency's division on air pollution programs. He raised eyebrows when he announced only one week after the agency eased regulations on air pollution controls that he would be a lobbyist for a company that owns coal power plants.
But in general, the media have a short attention span, and the public rarely tracks what their representatives do when they leave office. Only those of us with an interest in lobbying tend to keep track.
Perhaps we'd all keep a closer eye on post-Congress careers if we stopped thinking of corruption as blatant crimes like bribery, blackmail or even murder. That's what corruption looks like on television. What we need to recognize is that a prospective job offer is the moral equivalent of a blank check.
Two years is too short a time to make officials and staffers wait before they cash in on the personal connections and expertise they acquired as public servants. They should have to wait at least six years, the length of one
Without a longer waiting period, the democratic system as a whole will pay.
Suzanne Dovi, an associate professor at the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona, is author of "The Good Representative." She is currently a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.