The two leading candidates for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden when he became Vice President -- Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) and New Castle county executive Chris Coons (D) -- have publicly criticized the Congressional revolving door.
In early August, Rep. Castle -- who was first elected to Delaware's single House seat in 1992 -- filed the Accountability and Transparency in Ethics Act, HR 6019, co-authored with Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA-19). The bill doubles the amount of time (from one year to two) that members of Congress, senior staff, and executive branch officials must wait before they lobby Congress.
Coons responded by proposing a lifetime ban on "Senator-turned-lobbyist" and a 5-year lobbying ban for senior Senate staff:
When a Senator resigns or is defeated, they should not be rewarded with high paying lobbying contracts that influence how our laws are crafted and passed. A lifetime ban on former Senators and a five year ban on senior staff begins to restore balance to the legislative process.
I find it fascinating that this anti-line-your-pockets rhetoric is coming from both parties in Delaware. Who here -- who hasn't lived in Delaware or taken the Dale Carnegie course -- knew that this tiny state was the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution? In 1776, "Delaware not only declared itself free from the British Empire, but also established a state government entirely separate from Pennsylvania."
In other words, there is an ethic of independent thinking in Delaware. That ethic is reflected in 2008 election results: Rep. Castle, achieved 61 percent of the vote compared to Presidential Candidate McCain's 37 percent.
Lest you think this rhetoric is confined to the nation's founding colonies, turn your eyes west to Colorado, where Sen. Michael Bennet (D) trumps Coons: he has introduced a bill "that would ban Members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists once they leave office." His bill would also extend the ban on staff becoming lobbyists from one year to six years. Note that Bennet was appointed to the seat when President Obama tapped then-Sen. Ken Salazar to serve as Interior Secretary.
Needless to say, these bills -- too isolated to yet consider a movement -- aren't popular with fellow legislators.
What is the revolving door and why is it a problem?
As I wrote in 2007:
In the context of Beltway Politics, "the revolving door" is shorthand for the all-too-common pattern of working in government (or being an elected official) only to leave (as a means?) to work as a lobbyist or consultant for those you "regulated" while in government. It also works in reverse, when "private sector" employees are appointed to high level positions where they are responsible for "regulating" their former employers.
Some call it a form of corruption.
In July, the Washington Post reported that "[t]hree of every four oil and gas lobbyists worked for federal government." So who is really surprised about the lax enforcement of lax regulations that led to the BP Blowout?
However, the problem is perceived as being important only to policy wonks and Washington insiders. That's why I'm encouraged by the fact that in at least two states the issue is gaining enough traction to become part of campaign discussion.
The door from Congressman to lobbyist seems to work only one way, with the door from staffer to industry insider back to staffer being the true revolving gateway. This year, former U.S. Senator and lobbyist Dan Coats is bucking that trend; he quit his lobbying job in February to try for the open seat vacated by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN).
Coats has had little presence in Indiana politics since deciding not to defend his seat against Bayh in the 1998 election. He worked as a lobbyist, then as ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush before joining the high-powered firm of King & Spalding. He helped lead the company's government affairs division and lobbied for pharmaceutical, defense and energy companies, among other firms.
Coats, who earned $600,000 in his 13 months at King & Spalding, has worked to distance himself from the profession. He said he was not responsible for all the firm's clients, only those he represented. Democrats say the firm's corporate clients — including Bank of America and Citigroup — were Coats' responsibility as head of the government advocacy and public policy division.
In what has to be supreme irony (or Orwellian speak), Coats is making a concerted effort to court the anti-establishment vote. However, the rhetoric seems to be working: Coats leads his Democratic opponent in current polling.
If you'd like to learn more about the problem, check out Fix Congress First, an initiative driven by Lawrence Lessig. Ironically, his initial slogan -- Change Congress -- is a domain owned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (ironic because today it is the Democrats who control both house of Congress).
OpenSecrets provides detailed information on "the influence powerhouses that line Washington's K Street." And it names names: check the list of former Congressmen and Senators who "now receive handsome compensation from corporations and special interests as they attempt to influence the very federal government in which they used to serve." Use web site tools to discover "the number and percent of lobbyists we've identified as having spun through the revolving door between government and the influence industry." And over at SourceWatch, you can see examples of the government-industry revolving door.