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Retiring lawmakers will face tough market on K Street

‘K Street is not hungering for former members,’ senator-turned-lobbyist Norm Coleman says

In most cases, it’s congressional staff members who K Street really clamors for. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
In most cases, it’s congressional staff members who K Street really clamors for. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

K Street recruiters are poring over the list of 21, and counting, lawmakers planning to exit Congress, but the lobbying sector may offer a shrinking supply of big-money gigs heading into the 2020 elections. 

As more House members and senators consider making their escape from Capitol Hill, the realities of the K Street economy and the well-worn revolving door will be among their considerations, say insiders at lobbying firms and downtown headhunters.

“K Street is not hungering for former members,” said Norm Coleman, a former Republican senator from Minnesota who leads the government relations practice at Hogan Lovells, an international law firm. “When I meet with my colleagues, my friends who are leaving the House and Senate, I have very candid conversations with them about ‘What is it they want to do? How hard do they want to work?’”

Coleman and others who make hiring decisions on K Street say ex-lawmakers can sometimes struggle in the lobbying sector where they no longer receive the trappings that come with elective office, such as a team of staff members. Many former members also balk, at least initially, at the idea of registering as a federal lobbyist or foreign agent, setting out limitations that firms find increasingly frustrating.

In most cases, it’s the congressional staff members that K Street really clamors for.

Former senators face a two-year ban on lobbying anyone in the legislative branch, while House members must not lobby Congress for one year. Still, even during their restrictions, former lawmakers may provide advice to clients and colleagues.   

‘Unlobbyists’ need not apply

“When you enter into a law firm, you may be a former senator or congressman, but now you’ve got to work as hard as every other of counsel or partner,” added Coleman, who is registered to lobby for Airbus Americas, T-Mobile and ZTE Corp., among others, according to lobbying disclosures filed this summer. “Folks work really hard in these firms.”

Other factors that may affect the job market for the growing crop of departing members include concerns about a possible economic downturn and uncertainty over the 2020 elections.

Plus, the market is already filled with former members. Of the more than 100 members from the 115th Congress who departed, at least 34 joined lobbying firms or went into private-sector employment, according to a CQ Roll Call study.

Trade associations, whose top jobs had long been a prestigious landing spot, have increasingly soured on ex-lawmakers and instead have picked veteran association executives.

“I don’t want to depress our former members, but the reality is the historical model of having a former member in the mix when trade associations are looking for CEOs is now taking more of a backseat,” said Julian Ha, who leads government affairs and trade association practice at the search firm Heidrick & Struggles. “That’s not the go-to candidate anymore.”

Still, many of the soon-to-be former members are likely to find lobbying or policy gigs.

Rep. Sean P. Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican who said he will leave Congress this month, has experience serving on the Financial Services panel where he is the ranking member on the subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance, making him attractive to banking clients.

Duffy has not announced his post-Congress plans and said he was leaving because of family reasons.

“There’s always a market for former members who are bright, well-connected, well-respected and willing to work hard and register to lobby,” said Hunter Bates, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and co-leader of the firm’s lobbying practice. “That’s the checklist everyone’s looking for in the marketplace.”

Bates noted that his shop, the biggest in terms of publicly reported federal lobbying revenue, hired three former members from the last Congress: ex-Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and former Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Lamar Smith of Texas. “All three are fantastic additions and check every one of those boxes,” he said.

Ivan Adler, a longtime K Street headhunter, said the lawmakers who have announced their departures already include a mix of diversity and committee seniority that may make them attractive to K Street.

Texas Rep. Will Hurd, for example, is the only African American Republican in the House and serves on the Appropriations and Intelligence panels. Another Texas Republican, Rep. K. Michael Conaway, once served as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, while Wisconsin GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is a former Judiciary chairman.

Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel and made his retirement plans known last December, has a reputation for bipartisan comity, something prized on K Street.

Show them the money

Former senators are likely to command starting salaries of $1 million in the lobbying sector, while House members typically find starting offers of $500,000 or more. Experience, previous business work, committee assignments and other factors can dramatically change those benchmarks. One of the few former members at the helm of a trade association is former Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Nussle, who runs the Credit Union National Association where his compensation was about $1.2 million, according to the group’s 2016 tax filing.

“There’s a good mix of all kinds of different people, which I think is good for K Street,” said Adler, who recently opened his own firm, Ivan Adler Associates, after working at The McCormick Group for 23 years. “Like anything, there will be winners and losers in this hiring.”

Of course, K Street isn’t the only path for the departing members.

Former Rep. Jim McDermott is lecturing at the University of Washington in Seattle and at universities around the globe after not seeking reelection in 2016. 

“If you’re going to make money, you’re not going into academia,” the Washington Democrat said. “What I tell my students is, I’m recruiting. I want the best people to think about going into government. I’m honest about it: You’re not going to make a lot of money, but it’s important for the country.”

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