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.
Remember Jack Abramoff, one of the best-connected lobbyists on Capitol Hill during the George W. Bush administration? In 2006, Abramoff was convicted on federal conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges. The scandal eventually led to the conviction of or plea bargains from 21 people, including White House officials, fellow lobbyists, congressional staffers and former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio).
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 Congress or staffer enters the lobbying world. But two years is simply too soon.
Job offers, usually with much higher salaries, lure powerful public officials and their staff away from public office. Dick Armey, Tom Daschle, Tom Foley and Trent Lott, all once very powerful members of Congress, are among those who became lobbyists. According to OpenSecrets.org, more than 420 former members of Congress are registered lobbyists. (This number does not include former members who influence public policy without registering as lobbyists.) In addition, more than 5,400 former congressional staffers have left Capitol Hill to become federal lobbyists in the last 10 years.
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. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), for example, makes $1.5 million as a lobbyist for a trade group, more than he made as a Hall of Fame NFL wide receiver.
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 Senate term. A six-year wait would significantly weaken their connections and diminish their earning power as lobbyists. And that would reduce the temptation to treat public service as a trial job period, acting on behalf of a future boss rather than the constituents.
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.