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Being a minority staffer on Capitol Hill does have its advantages: Legislatively, you’re usually on the defensive, trying to stop bills from being passed, which is far easier than passing them. And you don’t have to spend time sorting through all those competing offers from K Street. But victory has its complications as well. And although Democratic congressional staff are suddenly the toast of K Street, they are also on the verge of being able to control the legislative agenda, a dilemma that has left many Democratic staffers suddenly pondering the meaning of life — and the cost of college tuition. “People do feel like they’re in a bind. The attractions of finally making a salary that approaches what you might have dreamed about in law school — that’s enticing,” notes former Democratic Hill staffer Caroline Fredrickson. “On the other hand, there are opportunities to make a real difference on the issues they’ve worked on for 20 years in government.” “It’s the sound strategy for financial security versus finally having your hand in making a change,” adds Fredrickson, who runs the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office and was deputy chief of staff for former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). “It’s a tough situation.” The extra value K Street now assigns top Democratic staff is enough to make even the most ideologically committed Hill staffer pay attention. Says Patton Boggs’ John Jonas, “There’s a 40 percent premium now between winners and losers.” That’s for a purely political hire, adds Jonas, for someone whose speciality is who they know, not what they know. Elite Democratic Hill staffers — those who run committees whose actions influence corporate America, and those who have long-standing relationships with senior committee members — now could command upward of $400,000 a year, say law firm hiring partners. For the more technically oriented staffers (someone off the House Financial Services Committee, for example), “I’d narrow that spread to 20 to 25 percent,” Jonas adds. For many Democratic staffers, there’s another added incentive to leave and to leave now. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is likely to re-introduce her Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, a bill that would double — from one year to two — the length of time a former high-ranking staffer would be barred from lobbying his former member or, for committee staff, anyone on the committee. “A lot of Democratic people are looking at that lobby ban coming down the pike pretty soon, and they’re saying, �I have to get out now or stay for a long time,’ ” notes Stewart Verdery, a former Senate Republican Hill staffer and onetime assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security, who opened a solo lobby practice in September. A spokesperson for Pelosi’s office confirms the incoming speaker’s intent to reintroduce the bill at the beginning of the 110th Congress. A LOT OF MONEY AND SOME TALENT Former members who want to start a lobby career will face an even tougher time under Pelosi’s bill because they are already dealing with more stringent restrictions. Under current law, former members are forbidden from lobbying any member or staffer from either chamber during their first year out of office. For law firms and lobby groups that may be forced to pay upward of $500,000 for a member, a two-year cooling-off period may simply be too expensive, says Rich Gold, who runs Holland & Knight’s lobby practice. “To hire a former member and have them sit around for two years will cost you a million bucks,” he says, adding that there appears to be, at least at law firms, less of a reliance on hiring former members than on hiring “hard-working, bill-2,000-hour-a-year types of senior staff folks.” Of course, leaving the Hill is a complicated decision; perhaps the most common reason is the need to make more money to pay for staffers’ children’s private school and college tuition. But there are other factors as well, including the hours. “In the majority, depending on the committee or in leadership, it can be crazy,” notes one senior Democratic staffer who’s leaving the Hill. “And it’s not just the hours, it’s the unpredictability of the hours. And members,” he adds, “always want staff around.” Not every former member or Democratic staffer, no matter how senior, is considered a good catch. There’s a real problem with what one former Republican staff director to a major House committee calls “members’ disease,” the tendency among many former congressmen to think they’re still members of Congress with a guaranteed salary. In fact, to cover their firm’s overhead, they must typically bring in business worth roughly three times their salary. “They think that what you need to have around you is a large team of people, they fundamentally don’t understand the economics of this business,” says the former staff director, who is now a lobbyist. That said, the crop of former mem-bers coming onto the market — mostly Republicans, who had no choice about whether to remain on the Hill — is less than bountiful. It is unclear where any of them will be heading. Notes the head of one large law firm lobby practice, “I don’t see a whole crop of Bob Doles and George Mitchells coming out.” In the Senate, the hottest prospect is Missouri’s James Talent, the one-term Republican senator who was ousted by Democrat Claire McCaskill. Talent, a former House member as well, had a 10-month stint in 2001 as a lobbyist at Arent Fox. Retiring House Financial Services Chairman Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) would be another fine catch, say lobbyists and law firm managing partners, although many people believe he will go out on his own. Probably the other hottest House prospect is Republican Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, a 12-term veteran and health care expert who lost in a landslide to Democrat Chris Murphy. But there’s something else that makes a successful lobbyist besides subject knowledge and connections — a certain way of being able to look at the world. “Talking to staff or talking to members is only a small part of the equation,” says the former staff director who now lobbies. “You have to be able to create an environment to change policy, and that means understanding how members are motivated. “Lots of people have been up here and worked for a member but don’t understand the politics of other members or how to work with them. They don’t understand the forces, even though they’re subject to them, that shape opinion,” adds the lobbyist. SO WHERE ARE THE CLIENTS? And there’s still another unknown that affects lobbyists coming downtown from Capitol Hill. “By definition, when somebody’s leaving the Hill, you have no business,” notes former Republican Senate staffer Verdery. “So it’s hard to understand what your market worth is if you don’t come with business in hand. You’re not quite sure what you’re getting. It’s a little bit of guesswork.” At the very least, notes Holland & Knight’s Rich Gold, a potential hire must “present well, relate well to people, put them at ease, and be substantially respected in their field.” It’s also important to have met people in the course of one’s Hill job who could be potential clients downtown. “You could be the best person in the world, but if you’re in the back office somewhere and haven’t had any contacts, who knows?” says Gold. “The people who do the best in this type of work come out with a substantial Rolodex of people they can call.” One thing is for sure. Republican lobbyists, no matter how well-heeled or well-respected they may be, are certain to see their clout diminish. “The people in purely Republican shops, they don’t know how much power will erode how quickly,” says Jonas of Patton Boggs, a Democrat who spent 10 years on the Hill and in the executive branch. “The minute the Republican majority is gone, you kind of just go into a meeting, and people won’t turn to you and ask you �What’s happening?’ because they no longer care what you think. “But life goes on, it’s more a blow to your ego and your career path. If you’re good, though, you’ll get hired, and then you wait around until you’re in the majority again.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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