The real scandal isn’t what’s illegal, but what’s perfectly legal. That’s still true a quarter-century after political pundit Michael Kinsley first made the observation.
A case in point is the revolving door that congressional staffers spin through to become lobbyists and cash in on their inside knowledge and connections.
Federal ethics rules are supposed to limit lobbying by former public officials for one year after they leave government. Even though regulations were tightened in 2007 after the Jack Abramoff scandal rocked Capitol Hill, more than 1,650 congressional aides have registered to lobby within a year of leaving their jobs, according to an analysis by The New York Times. At least half had no restrictions on their activities.
The free-for-all is particularly egregious in the House, where gigantic loopholes let aides easily make the jump from government work to six- and seven-figure salaries in the private sector, without worrying about the one-year “cooling-off” period.
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Some aides get their paychecks from an individual lawmaker or leadership office, so they can immediately lobby a committee they worked with – a tactic not allowed in the Senate, the Times reported Sunday. Others turn down raises to keep their salaries below the $130,500-a-year cutoff for lobbying restrictions.
It’s all legal. Violations are rarely prosecuted, anyway. So it isn’t too surprising that in 2012, more than 40 percent of all registered lobbyists in the nation’s capital were former government employees – double the percentage in 1998. Sadly, this is another change that President Barack Obama promised to bring to Washington that hasn’t happened.
Speaking of business as usual, the lobbying rules for former legislative staffers are even more lax – nonexistent, really – in California.
While legislators themselves, board members and many agency employees are covered by restrictions on lobbying within one year of leaving state jobs, the Political Reform Act specifically excludes employees and consultants of the Legislature. State administrative officials are permanently banned from “switching sides” on proceedings they worked on while on the public payroll, but legislative aides are not covered.
Those exemptions are not on the agenda of the Fair Political Practices Commission; legislators, some of whom are former aides, aren’t going to rock the boat.
Former legislative aides are among the most effective lobbyists in Sacramento, where lobbying firms raked in more than $177 million in 2013, nearly 3 percent more than in 2012.
By and large, lobbyists are not bad people. They have a role to play in how our laws are made.
Still, can you blame people for thinking that their hard-earned taxes are mere chips in a high-stakes poker game between special interests? It’s no wonder why the public is so cynical about government.