Foxes in the Congressional Henhouse
Back in 1831, North Carolina Congressman Robert Potter castrated two men whom he suspected of sleeping with his wife. His colleagues in the House took no action against him. Later, when serving in the State General Assembly, Potter was caught cheating at cards, and was immediately expelled from the chamber. The moral of the story is that it’s OK to cut from the bottom of a dick, so long as you don’t cut from the bottom of a deck. Clearly, legislators just don’t have their priorities straight.
Then as now, Congress is still ethically challenged. Today it nurtures and condones a revolving door system for its retiring members, which allows them to go to work for industries whom they have previously championed, or for whom they intend to obtain access, or both. The most recent example of this is Republican Congressman Eric Cantor from Virginia. The powerful House Majority Leader had built a substantial power base during his 13 years in Washington, where he was an advocate for big business. Last week he accepted a job with investment bank Moelis & Co., who is paying him a $1.4 million dollar signing bonus, and a $2 million dollar annual salary.
Upon hearing of Cantor’s windfall, Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren implied to Katie Couric that Cantor will be selling access to his former colleagues “who are still writing policy, and who are still making laws.”
Such criticism is not particularly new. ThinkProgress.org reminds us that former Reagan OMB Director David Stockman once described Cantor as a “Bag man for Wall Street.” Stockman was referring to Cantor’s support for TARP, and his opposition to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It’s no wonder that Cantor’s Tea Party opponent used the Bag Man tag to defeat the incumbent in a recent primary election. According to ThinkProgress.org, David Brat said, “All of the investment bankers in New York and D.C., they should have gone to jail, but instead went on Eric’s rolodex and sent him big checks.”
Cantor’s primary defeat was unexpected, especially since that same investment banking industry had lined his campaign coffers with nearly $8 million over the past few years. But while Virginia voters finally got wise to Cantor’s antics, Congress itself continues to turn a blind eye to the practice of revolving door power brokering. In recent years, Senate Banking Chairman Phil Gramm took a job with UBS. House banking subcommittee chairman Rick Lazzio went on JP Morgan Chase’s payroll, and former Representative Larry LaRocco became a lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. In fact, today, 50% of all retiring Congressmen now go on to become lobbyists. That compares with just 3% in 1974.
To be fair, such influence peddling hasn’t been limited to Congressmen. Revolving door politics has also been a problem in the West Wing. That’s why on his first day in office, Bill Clinton signed an executive order that barred retiring senior staffers from lobbying their former colleagues for five years. However, in the last few days of his second term, Mr. Clinton revoked his own order so that his outgoing staff could transition into the private sector without delay. History repeated itself nine years later when President Obama had his staff and appointees sign an Ethics Pledge. But the terms of Obama’s pledge had loopholes big enough to drive a truck through, including a provision by which the director of the OMB could issue waivers to certain White House insiders.
That brings us back to the Legislative Branch and people like Eric Cantor who are supposed to serve the public, but end up mainly serving themselves. Under current federal law, Senators are barred from lobbying Congress for two years after leaving their post, and House members are barred for one year. But here’s the rub. Folks like Cantor can leave office and immediately go to work for one of his pet companies without breaking the law. That’s because he can “advise” his new employer on how to navigate the halls of Congress without directly lobbying former members himself, who, by the way, he’s free to meet with socially, wink-wink. But Cantor isn’t necessarily even being paid to help Moelis in the future. As The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart pointed out, the millions Cantor is reaping from Moelis is just compensation for services already rendered. Stewart is right on target. If nothing else, Cantor is being richly rewarded for protecting the interests of the investment banking industry while serving in Congress.
Republican Rep. Michael Bennet and Democratic Senator Jon Tester would like to see retiring members of Congress barred from any kind of lobbying for life, but their attempts have fallen on deaf ears, and will continue to do so, at least until we can send enough fresh faces to Washington who aren’t interested in lining their pockets. Once that happens, then we might see some viable ethics reform enacted. My suggestion is to tie the length of a lobbying ban to the actual number of years served in Congress. For example, if a one term representative leaves office, he could go to work anywhere he wishes after two years. But if that same official remained in Congress for 10 years, then his ban would last for a decade. In Washington, power and influence only come with time served, so my plan would render powerful incumbents virtually powerless to influence policy upon their retirement.
In the meantime, we need to keep pushing for term limits and vote out as many incumbents as possible. Otherwise we’ll be stuck with elected officials who look the other way while they and their contributors (and future employers) screw the American public. It makes you mad enough to want to castrate those corrupt officials. Where’s Robert Potter when you need him. !
JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).