Law firms and lobbying shops are preparing for a flood of résumés from soon-to-be unemployed Members, as popular discontent and, ultimately, November voters push lawmakers toward the exits.
Making the move from Capitol Hill to K Street is becoming a well-worn path for pink-slipped and retiring Members. With 19 Members already throwing in the towel this cycle — and many more likely to come after Election Day — K Street’s top firms will have their pick of the litter.
“There are some well-qualified Members who are retiring who are capable of making the transition downtown,— said Korn/Ferry International’s Nels Olson, a K Street headhunter.
Last cycle several lawmakers headed downtown for more lucrative gigs, including former Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), who landed at Dickstein Shapiro after a primary loss to now-Rep. Donna Edwards; and former Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) who quit for a high-paying position as president and CEO of the Managed Funds Association.
In 2008, former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) transitioned virtually overnight from veteran lawmaker to wealthy influence peddler at the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, a firm that he started with former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.).
Lott’s small firm brought in more than $10 million in revenue last year, according to Senate lobbying disclosure records.
Among the retiring Members this cycle, Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a Blue Dog Coalition co-founder, is considered the hottest prospect. Known as a deal-maker, Tanner has been a leader for the powerful voting bloc of fiscally conservative, pro-business Democrats.
Other retiring moderate Democratic war horses, such as Reps. Vic Snyder (Ark.), Marion Berry (Ark.) and Bart Gordon (Tenn.), may also soon be fielding generous offers.
Veteran Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.), along with centrist Republican Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), are seen as potential K Street pickups for contract firms or trade associations.
A former appropriator and current Democratic Policy Committee chairman, Dorgan has many of the qualities that K Street firms are looking for, including expertise in energy issues as climate change legislation pushes forward. Dorgan, who has signaled his interest in staying involved in energy policy post-Senate, also served as North Dakota tax commissioner for 10 years before being elected to the House. And Dorgan is no stranger to the influence business: His wife, Kimberly Dorgan, is a senior vice president at the American Council of Life Insurers.
Although Dodd distanced himself from the financial services industry over the past year as he geared up for a re-election campaign that was to be the political fight of his career, lobbyists said they believe he still has a strong cache downtown, particularly given his expertise not only on Wall Street, but also in health care policy.
Gregg, ranking member on the Budget Committee, is also seen as a hot commodity downtown. Nominated to be Commerce secretary by President Barack Obama before withdrawing his name, Gregg is widely seen as being able to work with both parties, a draw for trade associations looking for executives who are able to weather changing political tides.
But perhaps even more attractive than the now-known crop of Congressional free agents are the dozens of other Members who may lose their jobs when the polls close Nov. 2.
“It’s a deep pool of talent, considering those who have already announced and those who are vulnerable and may not be in office a year from now,— a K Street source said. “There are some pretty good names on both sides of the aisle who are trying to move up from the House to the Senate and may not succeed. Or Senators who are vulnerable — in this election cycle, who knows what’s going on.—
The list of vulnerable incumbents this cycle or Members looking to switch chambers includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who are both running for Senate seats.
Despite a down economy, former lawmakers are still expected to draw a much bigger salary than during their tour in public service.
Multiple downtown sources suggested that the salary range for Members coming right off the Hill this year could vary dramatically. Depending on their committee assignments, recently retired lawmakers may soon be tendering baseline offers as low as $250,000 for part-time gigs, all the way up to $1.25 million salary packages for former chairmen and party leaders.
“These days, it boils down to having some substantive expertise in areas that are going to translate well to client needs,— a downtown lobbyist responsible for hiring said recently. “You’re talking about big issues: taxes, health care, energy, tech-com, defense.—
Easing the Transition
Members rarely open up their own lobby shops or join smaller boutique firms because they don’t have the infrastructure to help ease their transition into the private sector.
That shift can often be rough, especially at small lobby shops.
Former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), a Blue Dog who lost his seat in 2004, described going through workplace withdrawal when he landed his lobbying job at Olsson Frank Weeda. The one-time ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee went from a staff of 26 to “half a secretary— overnight.
“It was a big adjustment,— he said. “I had to learn to do a whole lot of things myself. I never cease to appreciate the scheduler. … It’s a pretty difficult job.—
Mark Irion, CEO of Dutko Worldwide, said his firm generally shies away from hiring former Members, who have a reputation for requiring “more care and feeding than our culture would easily accommodate.—
“We have a culture here of workhorses rather than show horses,— he said.
As some of K Street’s biggest law firms have faced a series of layoffs, many of the typical cushy jobs for lawmakers without plumb committee assignments are no longer available because of the struggling economy.
Still, Irion added that there should continue to be brisk demand for Members, particularly at larger law firms that can absorb costs and bring in boldfaced political names to close deals and pontificate about the proclivities of their former colleagues.
“Law firms have famously done it with Senate-type figures,— he said. “One way that you can do that is you get a couple of hundred lawyers all billing against it. They find it really profitable to just offer someone like that as strategic counsel.—
Additionally, with financial services firms flocking inside the Beltway, Smith Davis, a Republican lobbyist at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said investment firms could try to recruit former Members to sort through a new regulatory environment.
There are also several top slots at trade associations vacant.
The American Council of Life Insurers, Credit Union National Association, Beer Institute and Motion Pictures Association of America are all actively searching for new leadership.
Associations are often one of the most attractive options for former Members because of the flexible hours and generous benefits packages — annual salaries can be as high as $6 million.
With several of those searches ongoing, the trade groups may be looking to fill the slots earlier than the end of the year. Still, it’s unlikely that Members will depart before their successors are named because of the high cost of special elections, according to Ivan Adler, a headhunter at the McCormick Group.
Both Senators and House Members have to publicly disclose to the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House within three days of starting negotiations with the private sector. None of the retiring Members has made that move yet.