Balancing Act

Members Seeking New Jobs Must Avoid Conflicts of Interest

Posted November 21, 2003 at 4:39pm

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La), chairman of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, is looking for a job. And like many Americans, he is trying to balance that search with his current employment.

In the past year, Tauzin has sat down with a headhunting firm to take a look at his options but has turned down a few job prospects. Now, he is expected to receive an offer from the movie industry in what has become one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington.

“A number of people have approached him about the possibility this year and he has told all of them that he wasn’t interested,” Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said late last month. Johnson added that Tauzin would “probably” get an offer from the Motion Picture Association of America by the end of the year. And if you believe the rumors, he’ll accept.

But while he has been keeping one eye on the job market this year, Tauzin also has been running a Congressional panel that has perhaps more influence over corporate America — his future employer — than any other body on Capitol Hill.

During that time, Tauzin sought to comply with Congressional ethics rules by conducting much of his job search through intermediaries to keep negotiations at arm’s length, though he declined to name whom he is using.

Still, Tauzin’s job hunt highlights the perils that high-ranking lawmakers face when they decide it is time to make some money in the private sector.

As the GOP nears its 10th consecutive year in power on Capitol Hill, that issue will be increasingly important as more and more senior Republicans decide to leave Congress for well-paying jobs downtown.

In addition to Tauzin’s expected departure, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) has already announced he will not run for re-election next year, House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) is thought to be mulling his options and Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) openly weighed a $1 million-a-year job with the wireless industry before choosing to remain in the House.

The House ethics committee has spelled out guidance for Members to follow when negotiating outside employment offers, but the onus for complying with ethical standards rests entirely on the lawmaker, who, like most job applicants, is likely to conduct a job search in confidence.

The rules don’t require any public reporting of job-related contacts and leave it up to the lawmaker to decide whether to abstain from voting or acting on legislation that may benefit a potential future employer.

“A Member is free to pursue future employment contemporaneous with his or her service in the House, subject, however, to certain ethical constraints,” the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct noted in a Nov. 25, 2002, advisory.

“First and foremost, it would be improper for a Member to permit the prospect of future employment to influence his or her official actions,” the memo warned.

But that determination is left almost entirely to the individual lawmaker, and there appears to be no precedent for the ethics committee actually enforcing the standards with an action against a lawmaker.

And once the lawmaker leaves office, the committee loses jurisdiction and wouldn’t be able to launch a case.

The advisory suggests, but doesn’t require, the use of a headhunter to serve as a buffer to avoid questions about conflicts of interest.

It is entirely up to the lawmaker whether to abstain from voting or taking other official action on matters that would affect a potential employer while in the process of negotiating or after accepting a job offer.

The committee’s only guidance on that final point suggests that abstention “is not warranted unless the official action would convey a particular benefit (in this case, to the outside party with whom the Member is negotiating), rather than a benefit that would be shared by a large class to which the party may belong.”

So, for example, a lawmaker who has accepted a job with Boeing can vote on the Defense appropriations bill but should probably refrain from voting on legislation authorizing a specific Boeing aircraft project.

While Tauzin’s courtship with the MPAA has been the subject of public speculation for months, little has been said by public watchdog groups about the ethical implications.

But they do have some concerns.

Celia Wexler, research director for Common Cause, noted that while lawmakers have a right like anyone else to consider job prospects, “We hope they are considering the public’s good and not their own individual good.

“Tauzin made it clear that media consolidation may pass the Senate but it was not going to darken his door,” Wexler noted. “It is troubling that Tauzin’s potential future employer, the MPAA, has a stake in what happens or fails to happen with this legislation.

“He’s the chairman of a very powerful committee that controls so much of what is important to this employer. The fact that he has been angling for a job with the industry that is completely affected by this just makes it worse.”

Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, said that “the post-employment restrictions are weak but the greater problem is the unwillingness of the ethics committee to actively police them.”

“If the ethics committee wanted to, it could be asking Members about what they are doing about their post-employment negotiations,” he said, noting that Tauzin’s potential hire by the MPAA has been widely publicized for months.

“The ethics committee would have to be dumb as a stump not to know about this,” Ruskin added.

One potential method for policing job hunters would be to require notification to the ethics committee when a lawmaker engages in negotiation with a potential employer. And that notification, Ruskin said, should be made public.