• U.S.

From Legislator to Lobbyist

5 minute read
Robert T. Zintl

When five-term California Democratic Congressman Jerry Patterson lost his bid for re-election last November, he reviewed his options: find a Government job, return to law practice or start a new career. “Be a snow-plow operator in Tahoe,” jokes Patterson, “or something like that.” In the end, Patterson chose Washington. An influential former member of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, he became a Washington-based attorney and lobbyist for a California law firm, at about double the annual $75,100 congressional salary.

Patterson’s switch from legislator to lobbyist is an increasingly attractive choice for Congressmen who have lost or given up their seats. Reluctant to sever family and social ties in Washington, lured by bigger money than they could earn back home, they cash in on their Government experience and contacts by becoming advocates for industries, unions, trade groups and special interests of all stripes. Robert McGlotten, president of the American League of Lobbyists, estimates that as many as 200 retired Congressmen represent clients around the Capitol. “The Hill is crawling with them,” says Nancy Drabble, director of the consumers’ lobby Congress Watch.

At least one-quarter of the 50 former members of the just departed 98th Congress say they intend to remain in Washington to work in or around the Government. The most conspicuously well rewarded will almost certainly be former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, who will earn about a million dollars this year, principally as a representative of a Houston law firm, Vinson & Elkins.

More typical is Illinois Republican Congressman John Erlenborn, an expert in pension-plan legislation who just retired from Congress after serving ten terms. He now expects to make three times his former salary as a consultant to companies affected by the laws he once wrote. “My expertise is worth the most here,” says Erlenborn. “I never did intend to be in Congress for the balance of my life.”

The escalating cost of campaigning is another reason lobbying has become an attractive alternative to battling for re-election. Newly retired Colorado Congressman Ray Kogovsek estimated it would cost $500,000 to win a fourth , term. He will now divide his time between Colorado and Washington consulting firms, and has been hired by two Colorado water districts to lobby for a project he had endorsed as a member of the House Interior Committee. Says Washington Career Lobbyist Thomas H. Boggs Jr.: “They see people making a lot more money than they do, and they see lobbying as an opportunity. They weigh that against ten to 15 more years in politics.” Ex-Congressmen who do not go home are a Washington tradition. Former Senators Birch Bayh and John Sherman Cooper have Washington law practices. Onetime Minnesota Congressman Clark MacGregor is a senior vice president of United Technologies, the manufacturing conglomerate. Some former members are more powerful than they were as Congressmen: James D. McKevitt was only a one-term representative from Colorado from 1971-73, but he is now chief lobbyist of the 500,000-member National Federation of Independent Businessmen. Still, McKevitt acknowledges that when an ex-member turns to lobbying, the attitude of his former colleagues changes: “It’s not that they see you as scum of the earth, but it is a kind of disdain.”

Indeed, many Capitol Hill observers are uneasy at the sight of so many legislators turned lobbyists. Some former Congressmen now representing clients on the Hill voted for the 1978 Ethics in Government Act to prevent federal officials from lobbying with their old agencies for a year after they leave Government. “It’s not illegal, but it’s sometimes sleazy,” says Congress Watch’s Drabble. “You see former Congressmen standing out in the halls even though they’re earning six figures.”

Former Michigan Congressman William Brodhead, who complained about lobbyists during his days as a legislator, seems to have reversed his views: he represents the city of Detroit and the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company in Washington. Brodhead contends that his experience in the House provides him with “access” but no other advantage. “You’re getting in the door,” he says. “You’re not necessarily getting what the clients want.”

Not all former Congressmen make effective lobbyists. “A lot of them live off their reputations, figuring the contacts they have will carry the day,” says Norman Ouellette, past president of the American League of Lobbyists. “Some have a total distortion of how the business end of things operates.” Although former Congressmen are permitted on the floors of the House and Senate, they are painfully aware of the unspoken rule against lobbying there. Sometimes their sense of decorum goes too far: “Many of them are afraid to ask for favors,” says Drabble. “They don’t want to be heavyhanded, whereas a regular lobbyist will just say, ‘Can’t we get this exact language?’ “

If ex-Congressmen are not always successful at Washington lobbying, to many of them it still beats earning a sometimes modest living back home. Colorado’s Kogovsek had never made more than $20,000 a year before being elected to the House in 1978. Says he: “My standard of living improved when I came to Congress. I got used to it. It’s important that Ray Kogovsek provide college educations and a comfortable living for his two daughters and wife.”

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