The Revolving Door: Why Former Legislators Embrace Lobbying Roles

The Revolving Door: Why Former Legislators Embrace Lobbying Roles

By ALEX ADESEYE | October 19, 2017

During the past couple years, several members of Congress have resigned, lost, or announced plans to leave their roles to become lobbyists. Some were even setting plans with prospective employers prior to leaving, with the potential to command premiums of $100,000 more than regular lobbyists. To it into perspective, over 140 former members of the U.S. House are thought to have lobbied Congress for bills between 2011 and 2014. So, what exactly is going on?

In his American Politics Research article, “A Very Particular Set of Skills: Former Legislator Traits and Revolving Door Lobbying in Congress,” Todd Makse offers evidence that former members of Congress become some of the most influential lobbyists concerning the passage of bills. Senior officials like party leaders and members of key committees are among those most likely to become lobbyists and make greater impacts on bills.

In his research, Makse focused on members of the House who served between 1972 and 2010, then later served in lobbying capacities in the 112th and 113th Congresses. Lobbying efforts by former members are associated with greater odds of bill advancement through both chambers of Congress. So, the question remains: does the presence of former members of Congress lobbying on a bill strengthen the bill’s potential for enactment? Well, it depends.

The report examined the impact of former members-turned-lobbyists on the legislative process, using two traits: network positions and legislative effectiveness. These legislative traits indicate which members of Congress will go through the “revolving door” into lobbying roles. Strong connections and potential of influence often directly benefit lobbying firms and other entities. A lobbyist’s goal is to promote or deny passage of a bill, depending on the bill’s specific subject matter and the actual companies or interest groups involved in the legislative process.

However, network positions appear to hold less significance than legislative effectiveness. Legislative effectiveness refers to how successful members of Congress are at moving measures through the legislative process. This quality often requires knowledge, experience, and skills that likely carry over from Congress into lobbying capacities, among former legislators. However, the value of network positions weakens over time, even as this trait likely captures other personal qualities of a given former legislator, such as character, networking skills, and public opinions.

According to Makse’s report, there was little evidence that former members-turned-lobbyists, who have more central network positions, make bigger impacts on bill progress than those with peripheral positions. Yet, a bill is more likely to pass at least one chamber of Congress if there are more former members lobbying for the bill. Former members who were highly effective legislators have the greatest impacts on bill passage through its first couple stages. In fact, highly effective legislators have 1.23 times higher odds of positively impacting bill passage per individual.

The implications of the study are yet to be seen. The influence of former members of Congress on bill passage, through lobbying roles, is not necessarily unusual. The interplay between political interest groups, coalitions, market players, and government entities has become commonplace in the policymaking process. Those who stand to gain or lose from legislation play key roles to satisfy their own bases and agendas by pushing for various causes.

Among the most recent are big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Robert McChesney, communications professor at the University of Illinois, says that the current state of the economy is intrinsically linked to such tech giants, especially with advances in automation and machine-learning technology. Yet, as powerful businesses seek to maximize their market shares and profits, they often further turn the tide of public opinion.

American voters and consumers are increasingly becoming aware of fake news, exploited personal information, and scandals within both business and government. With the loud echoes of political disillusionment, social inequality, threats of economic stagnation, environmental concerns, and job loss, the private abuse of the public interest is a looming concern for many Americans.

A few lobbying reform bills were passed since the 1990s to mitigate potential harms from lobbying practices. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which sought to bring accountability and transparency to federal lobbying, was amended by the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. This later bill strengthened public disclosure statutes and even restrictions on members of Congress and staff.

However, as various players in Washington employ more effective lobbying strategies, demand and incentive to hire former successful legislators for lobbying purposes will increase. Makse’s research may even influence new perspectives about the potential links between specific business sectors or interest groups, and former members of Congress. For those former legislators who were most effective in Congress, the potential for influence on new legislation grows as they join the lobbying arena.

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