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Book Explores How Lobbyists Fill a Void in Congress

“It’s not who you know, it’s what you know”

In their new book “Revolving Door Lobbying,” Timothy LaPira and Herschel Thomas look at the connections between federal government service and lucrative lobbyist careers. (Courtesy University Press of Kansas)
In their new book “Revolving Door Lobbying,” Timothy LaPira and Herschel Thomas look at the connections between federal government service and lucrative lobbyist careers. (Courtesy University Press of Kansas)

If you bemoan lobbyists or the revolving door that spins between government service and K Street, blame Congress.

The shift on Capitol Hill to centralize much of the major policymaking in leadership offices, as opposed to committees, along with a reduction in legislative staff and their salaries has helped propel the revolving door in recent years, says Timothy LaPira, a James Madison University professor.

All that has increased demand for plugged-in K Street insiders, even as President Donald Trump has pledged to drain the swamp but has done little to do so.

“There’s a vacuum in Congress right now for that expertise, and we see not only lobbyists but particularly revolving-door lobbyists filling that vacuum,” said LaPira, who is out with a new book this month that offers fresh data on the lobbying industry. “And you’re going to get a less than ideal product.”

LaPira, one of the few academics to study K Street, and co-author Herschel Thomas of the University of Texas at Arlington have packed their book “Revolving Door Lobbying” with years of research on the connections between federal government service, both on the Hill and the executive branch, and lucrative careers downtown.

He and Thomas, with their team of students, scrubbed data from federal lobbying reports to reveal that more than half, 52 percent, of all registered federal lobbyists have come through the revolving door. What’s more, those revolving-door lobbyists earn $4.40 for every $1 earned by their counterparts who have not worked in the federal government, they found.

Though that might seem to build a case for the quid-pro-quo, access-oriented reputation of the influence industry, LaPira and Thomas argue the opposite. Instead of hiring former government officials to buy specific bills or policy outcomes from their ex-colleagues, companies and associations hire a team of well-connected lobbyists as a sort of political insurance — a means of reducing the risk that government will harm their company or their industry.

“If you have all the right lobbyists at the right place at the right time, chances are you’re not going to get hurt, for one, and maybe you might get something good out of it,” LaPira told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview.

Insurance policy

In their book, LaPira and Thomas write that “different kinds of lobbyists provide different kinds of political insurance coverage” with the best coming from those who worked on the Hill, in the White House or in executive agencies. Such experience tends to last far longer than an individual’s ties to a former boss.

Lobbyists, such as one LaPira and Thomas dub the K Street Kingpin, can remain at the top of their careers for decades after leaving government service — long after their old patrons have retired, gone to K Street themselves or even died.

What revolving-door lobbyists pick up in government lasts beyond their contacts; it offers an education in the behind-the-scenes process of making laws and government policy.

“It’s not who you know, it’s what you know,” said John Feehery, a partner at EFB Advocacy, who previously worked for House Republicans including then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. Hastert is now in prison, but Feehery’s expertise and insight remain.

LaPira likens government experience to that of a baseball player who becomes a sports commentator. “The game may change, the players change, but they’ve been in the locker room,” he said.

Demand has increased for former officials, including former lawmakers who are more likely to become lobbyists than in past decades, as congressional staff become more focused on in-district constituent services than on policy matters, LaPira and Thomas argue. They trace a big drop in congressional staff capacity to the speakership of Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., in the 1990s, who eliminated roughly one-third of the House standing committees and cut staff in the remaining ones. The result was “a 37 percent decline in committee staff,” they write.

Members of the current GOP majority have similarly boasted of reducing their own staffing costs.

LaPira and Thomas aren’t the only ones drawing a connection between the rise in the revolving door and diminished policy capacity and inexperience in Congress and in the executive branch.

Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy for the nonpartisan group Issue One, noted research on congressional staff that found one in two legislative directors has been in their position fewer than three years.

“Let me tell you, as somebody that’s been in Washington since the 1980s, I can run circles around you guys,” she told a group of Hill aides in the Capitol during a panel discussion on lobbying last week. “I know how the process works, I know what levers to pull. And I’m just a public interest lobbyist. Can you imagine what the K Street lobbyists can do in this system if you have a little experience and some money under your belt?”

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