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In its zeal to react to the Jack Abramoff scandal, Congress could wind up increasing K Street’s hold over Capitol Hill, not diminishing it. The two principal Senate bills and a House leadership bill expected this week would all significantly tighten the porous lobbying restrictions now imposed on senior staffers and members who leave the Hill. And that means many high-level staffers who had casually thought they might one day move downtown — but not for a while — are now considering bolting for the exits. “You’re already seeing it,” notes Richard Gold, who runs the lobby practice at Holland & Knight. “In the last few weeks I’ve talked to three Senate chiefs of staff. �I’ve got kids,’ they say. �I can’t ruin my career this way.’ “ Right now, former staffers can lobby anyone except the individual member’s office or committee from where they came, but otherwise they are free to lobby throughout the Hill. Soon they could be barred from lobbying anyone, including members, in the chamber in which they served — at least for their first year out. Under one Senate version of the bill, former senators would be barred from lobbying the entire Senate for two years. But the impact of tightening lobbying restrictions would do more than diminish the financial prospects of hundreds of senior staffers. It could actually increase the clout of outside firms. Senior staffers, especially those on the 40-odd Senate and House committees, provide Congress with its institutional memory. If they move en masse to K Street, Congress will need the same information but will have lost many of its sources, who will now be drawing better paychecks in the private sector. “In a funny way, what it would do is make members more dependent on lobbyists,” says the managing partner at a major D.C. law firm, which counts numerous lobbyists in its ranks. “You couldn’t walk down the hall and ask a staffer; you’d have to go to a lobbyist,” he says. “It’s the law of unintended consequences in full bloom.” The long-term impact on the House and Senate, say other staffers, could be even more severe. If post-Hill lobbying restrictions are too onerous, they say, Congress would no longer be as inviting a place to work for many potential staffers, especially those who view such jobs as a steppingstone to K Street riches. While that might weed out a few opportunistic hires, it could also discourage people with talent and ambition. That would include a sizable number of staffers who decide to take a break from their lucrative private sector jobs to work on the Hill, with the expectation they could lobby their new buddies after they return to the corporate world. Indeed, argues a career senior Democratic House staffer, government works best when there are “people downtown who know this place and people at this place who know downtown.” A more stringent revolving-door statute might also affect how long junior staffers stay at their jobs. “People may not want to have a [senior staffer] salary, so they won’t be affected by the ban,” notes one longtime Republican staffer. “People are going to leave, rather than become a senior person who will be affected by this.” YOUTH IS OVERSERVED In short, if the predictions made by the bills’ critics materialize, the Hill will become even more youthful and the average staffer will have even less experience in government. The new bills target the same senior staffers subject to current restrictions: those making at least $123,900 a year, the equivalent of 75 percent or more of a member’s $165,200 base salary. Although neither the Senate nor the House could provide a precise figure, there are probably upward of a thousand staffers who could be affected. The irony, at least in the minds of many staffers and former Hill employees, is that they are being sacrificed to pay for the abuses of Abramoff, who never even worked on the Hill. “If Abramoff is the issue, the issue is not that Abramoff violated his one-year ban,” notes former Senate staffer Michael Levy, who faced a five-year ban on talking to former colleagues in the Treasury Department, where he worked during the Clinton administration. (President Bill Clinton rescinded the five-year ban on lobbying former colleagues in the executive branch on the day he left office.) “The scandals we’ve seen so far have been by people utterly lacking in individual integrity,” adds Levy, a legislative consultant at Brownstein Hyatt & Farber. “No one’s made the case that lobbying reform, as opposed to campaign finance reform, will do anything that the existing enforcement model will not do.” Still, senior staffers’ fears that they will be a less marketable commodity downtown appear to have some validity. This is especially true for those who plan to trade on their intimate knowledge of important members, rather than those whose major selling point is their technical expertise on issues such as tax policy, health care, the environment, or telecommunications. “If your principal value is knowing all the other staffers working in other areas, in such cases there would be a material impairment of your market value,” says the managing partner of the D.C. law firm. “In other cases, your understanding of the issues and dynamics within a committee and subcommittee, in that hypothetical, a one- or two-year ban would not be as much of an issue.” But while large firms may be able to carry an ex-staffer who can’t fully lobby for a year, boutique shops have no such luxury. “This certainly will kill going to a small lobbying firm, so the big boys will love this,” says the senior Democratic House staffer. Thomas Crawford, the president of the C2 Group, a relatively small lobby shop, says he can probably hire a former staffer subject to a one-year ban even if it includes the entire House or Senate. A two-year ban, which is part of a bill introduced by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) last summer but not expected to make it to the floor, would be much tougher to manage. “When you look beyond a year, that starts interfering with the ability of somebody to have a livelihood,” Crawford says. “It affects their ability to bring in business, to be self-sufficient. You’re definitely looking at a lack of attractiveness there. But I doubt they will do something that draconian.” DOWN FROM THE LEDGE Many others share that assessment. Of the two main Senate reform bills — one by the Rules Committee and its chairman, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the other by Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (Maine) and ranking Democrat Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) — only Collins’ bill includes a two-year ban, and that only applies to senators, not staffers. In addition, any new law is likely to have the same expansive loophole that currently exists: While the former House staffers cannot personally lobby their old boss, they can still provide strategy and tell other lobbyists whom to speak with. In fact, from Crawford’s vantage, making it tougher for so-called relationship lobbyists to ply their trade is a good thing. “It will be harder for former members and staff to come out and set up operations and compete directly with us, with all the enhanced restrictions on them,” he notes. “For firms like ours, which really do have a substantive practice, it really will put the hammer on backscratching politics, on people who say, �Well, my [former] boss will do it because I asked him.’ “ Though senior staffers may complain that their future prospects as high-rolling influence peddlers could be seriously diminished, good government types insist reforms would actually help those who view public service as its own reward instead of a steppingstone to future riches. “Members are not sacrificing when they go to Congress,” says Democracy 21‘s Fred Wertheimer. “They are provided with the privilege of public service.” That view highlights another, and perhaps more compelling, reason to keep a wide distance between former staffers and the House or Senate for at least a year — namely, to reduce the appearance that any official actions might be influenced by the prospect of future lobbying work. Public service has built-in conflicts of interest that are never going to go away, Levy notes. “If you know that eventually you are going to work in the electricity business, and you handle environmental issues on the Hill, and it looks like you’re trying to impress people for your next job, that would be a legitimate concern,” he says. A mandatory cooling-off period between the Hill and downtown would lessen that concern, at least to some extent. Still, says Holland & Knight’s Gold, so pervasive is the influence of money in politics, that almost anything Congress does, including strengthening the lobby ban, is likely to be viewed with extreme cynicism. “I don’t think Congress will get credit from the public regardless of what it does,” he says. “And I think people are starting to realize that they are going to lose a whole bunch of senior staff very quickly. So if you’re not even going to get credit from the public, it makes no sense at all.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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