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Street Talk: Plum K St. Jobs Scarce in Post-Election Market

If a revolving door between government and downtown actually existed, the line to get through it in the next few weeks would easily snake for miles.

Picture Members of Congress and their aides, who are leaving voluntarily or involuntarily, along with burned-out Obama administration staffers queueing up for potentially lucrative gigs in the private sector.

“It will be pandemonium,” said Eric Vautour, an executive with the headhunting firm Russell Reynolds Associates.

Even a status quo presidential election leads to seismic personnel shifts on Capitol Hill, the executive branch and K Street. But talent scouts such as Vautour and lobbyists who make hiring decisions say those on the hunt this year will find a slightly diminished marketplace, with top-salary jobs for ex-lawmakers, in particular, not as easy to land as previous years.

“The era of a lot of staff and Members coming out and getting platinum-level contracts is over,” said Rich Gold, who runs the lobby practice at Holland & Knight. “Members will be surprised.”

Gold said more firms, corporations and trade associations — whose bottom lines have suffered in the tough economy — will offer less guaranteed money and more incentive-based pay. That means newly minted lobbyists who don’t bring in new business or produce solid results for clients could wind up taking a financial hit.

“I think there’s going to be a much shorter leash on people meeting their productivity goals,” Gold said.

But before defeated and retiring Members of Congress and their aides get too worried, the pay bump for leaving government isn’t too shabby. And for some big names, seven figures will still be in play.

Retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) could command $1 million to $2 million if, say, he chooses to work full time at a law firm, according to experts in K Street hiring. Other Members of Congress may struggle to get half of
Lieberman’s minimum.

Top Congressional committee aides will likely attract offers of $400,000 a year, when perhaps in previous years they may have been able to raise that to $500,000. Even lower-level Hill staffers should expect to field an offer in the $150,000 range.

House Republicans also are likely to command better pay than their Democratic counterparts, and some might be looking to “get out while the getting’s good,” said Kathryn Lehman, a top GOP lobbyist at Holland & Knight.

Regardless of party affiliation, anyone on the Hill or in the administration who can sell themselves as an expert in taxes, budget matters, health care or financial services will find bidders downtown.

“You could be a wig, and you will be sought after in this town if you know about taxes,” said Ivan Adler, a lobbying headhunter with the McCormick Group. “My phone has been ringing already about taxes, taxes, taxes, people looking to hire those with tax experience. They don’t care if you are in the cocktail party. They have to do something or else we go off the fiscal cliff.”

Among the Members who will be shutting down their Congressional offices are retirees such as Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), a longtime advocate of the defense industry, and centrist Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), as well as those who lost on Election Day, including Reps. Robert Dold (R-Ill.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.). Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) lost her seat, and her husband, Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), lost his bid for a Senate seat.

But Adler said the job offers may come with strings attached.

“I think that due to the current economic situation, it’s going to be harder for firms to justify hiring people directly off the Hill and out of government unless they can make the case that they are going to be magnets for business walking in the door,” he said.

Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, an association that represents the public affairs industry, agreed.

“Don’t assume that just because you’ve been well-known or well-regarded on Capitol Hill that it will get you a high-paying job on K Street,” he said. “There’s a feeling in the corporate world and trade association world, increasingly, that former Members of Congress and key staff only make great Washington lobbyists and Washington office heads if they have some previous experience in the private sector.”

Pinkham added that the partisan bomb-throwers who might thrive on the Hill won’t easily fit in with the corporate hierarchy of K Street. Connections, too, have a relatively short shelf life.

“Remember when everybody bragged about how they worked for Tom DeLay?” he said, referring to the former GOP House Majority Leader who resigned in 2005 amid a campaign finance investigation.

The good news for lobbyists and wannabe K Streeters, Pinkham said, is that the scope of the tax and budget policy issues on the horizon may force every sector to arm up.

“Look at some of the big issues that are going to be talked about: budget cuts throughout the government, tax reform,” he noted. “There are constituencies all over the place that want to be represented.”

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