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Lobbyists to Congress: Pay staffers better

Six ex-lawmakers offer recommendations on making Capitol Hill great again

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress heard from lobbyists and former colleagues at a hearing Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress heard from lobbyists and former colleagues at a hearing Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

K Street denizens and former members of Congress offered tips on Wednesday for making Capitol Hill great again to the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, including recommendations to help Congress keep pace with lobbyists like themselves.

Six ex-lawmakers — including Virginia Republican Tom Davis — suggested that Congress pay its staffers more money to better hold their own with experts from K Street and the executive branch. They also called for more civility on Capitol Hill, less emphasis on fundraising, and to invest more in technology and technological savvy within the legislative branch.

Davis, a partner at the lobbying and law firm Holland & Knight where his clients include Spirit Airlines, said the salary caps on congressional aides is putting lawmakers at a disadvantage with K Street.

“Lobbyists play an important role” in crafting legislation, Davis said, but noted that staff with long-term expertise would be better able to “second guess” the legislative language lobbyists provide.

Some, including Davis, also offered a soft pitch for a return of earmarks, once the backbone of K Street business before lawmakers put a moratorium on them in 2011. Davis’ list of recommendations also included increasing the staff roster of the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office.

The modernization panel, a yearlong, 12-lawmaker committee, which is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, is tasked with coming up with recommendations for rehabilitating Congress in such areas as technology and cybersecurity, procedures and scheduling, staff retention and executive-branch oversight.

House members have given the new panel broad jurisdiction but not a lot of authority. The committee can’t offer legislation, but must offer regular updates and a set of final recommendations.

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Bipartisanship efforts

The committee’s chairman, Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer, and the panel’s top Republican, Tom Graves of Georgia, kicked off Wednesday’s hearing of former members by announcing that the committee members were sitting in Republican-Democrat order, not with members of each party on one side of the room or the other.

Kilmer said he’s heard a lot about the lack of civility on Capitol Hill, saying, “We may not be able to fix that quite yet,” but noted the panel was taking seriously its bipartisan charge.

Kilmer and Graves also issued a joint statement about the hearing.

“We are grateful to the six former Members of Congress who shared their experiences, ideas and solutions with our committee today,” Kilmer and Graves said. “To help tackle the challenges ahead of us, we can learn from the candid reflections of those who walked these halls. The Select Committee is exploring ways to improve Congress and better serve our constituents. We are excited to continue these conversations and produce recommendations to make the legislative branch more effective.”

Former Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat who co-chairs Issue One’s caucus of former elected officials who advocate a campaign finance overhaul, said the committee had important work at hand working to restore Americans’ faith in the legislative branch.

“They think the lobbyists, special interests and the donors are all in line before the regular person,” he said.

He called the pressure to raise increasingly large sums of campaign money a “cancer” afflicting Congress. “Raising money should not be the top priority of members of Congress.”

Strengthen committee system

Former Rep. Vic Fazio, who is now a lobbyist with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, warned lawmakers and would-be members against “running against the institution” to win election to serve in it.

The California Democrat also highlighted the erosion of the committee system, which once was the genuine incubator of legislation. Now, leadership offices cut the most significant legislative deals. He said lawmakers should free up more money to pay committee aides to give the panels increased policy expertise through longtime staffers.

“Now people have to leave to go downtown to earn more money,” said Fazio, whose lobbying clients include Amazon, AT&T and the Gila River Indian Community.

He also suggested bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment, to advise lawmakers on technology, saying past hearings on Facebook and Google put on display most lawmakers’ lack of understanding of technology.

Former Texas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, a longtime lobbyist, said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland was correct when he told the modernization panel in March that the Congress should bring back earmarks, congressionally directed funding for local projects.

“Leader Hoyer was right when he said that earmarks can create bipartisan cooperation,” he said.

Frost, who serves as the president of the Association of Former Members of Congress, said the organization was conducting exit interviews of members who left after the 115th Congress about why they left.

Ex-Rep. Reid Ribble, formerly a president of the National Roofing Contractors Association, said he chose to leave after the 114th Congress because of frustration that most legislation was crafted in leadership offices with rank-and-file lawmakers left out of the discussion until the end stages.

“I routinely joked that as a member of Congress I was nothing more than a figurehead,” the Wisconsin Republican told the committee. He also recommended ending the practice of leadership PACs, which allow lawmakers — not just those in leadership — an additional stream of campaign dollars.

Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, now a senior adviser at Akin Gump where her registered clients include Cermar Investments and MDIF Media Partners, focused on what she called “a breakdown of civility” in Congress.

“We need to be in a big group therapy session to figure out how to solve our problems without attacking each other,” the Florida Republican said.

She also encouraged lawmakers to hire staff members who reflect the diversity of the country and will “work across the aisle and build coalitions.”

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