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Traffic Jam in D.C.'s Revolving Door

Watchdog groups see acceleration in the glut of former federal legislators and regulators flocking to their former charges.

As the House and Senate work through conference committee negotiations over the next two weeks to merge a final financial reform bill, lurking on the Hill will be scads of former elected officials-turned-lobbyists.

Their existence isn't so surprising; politicians have been making a second career on the other side of the "revolving door" for decades. But their numbers — now easier to track than ever with the proliferation of Web databases and the NGOs who monitor them — are startling.

At least 73 former members of Congress are currently registered to lobby on behalf of the financial services sector, according to an analysis released last week by the Center for Responsive Politics and Public Citizen. Seventeen of them previously served on the banking committees of either the House or Senate.

The group includes two former Senate majority leaders (Republicans Bob Dole and Trent Lott), two former House majority leaders (Republican Dick Armey and Democrat Dick Gephardt) and a former speaker of the House (Republican Dennis Hastert).

And that's to say nothing of the former congressional staffers who know the minutiae of crafting complex regulation even better than most congressmen themselves. Another 66 former staffers of the House and Senate banking committees are now lobbying those same committees for industry.

In total, CPR and Public Citizen counted at least 1,447 former federal employees who have lobbied on behalf of the financial services sector since the beginning of 2009.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

"What we've seen is that in terms of broadly looking at the revolving door, there literally are hundreds and hundreds of people who are lobbying the federal government after having worked in the federal government in some capacity," said Dave Levinthal, CPR's communications director. "It's a trend that if anything only continues to accelerate. We see no signs of it abating."

In fact, in 2009, while the economy was generally crumbling, firms spent more money on lobbying (officially $3.49 billion) than in any previous year. But why exactly would "revolving-door" officials eat up a rising share of that take?

"'Cause it works," Levinthal said. "I don't mean to be glib at all, but it's quite true: If you get that type of expertise, if you get that type of knowledge, if you can purchase those connections that a revolving-door lobbyist often will have, that is going to help your bottom line as a company. That's going to help your goals as a special interest group. That's the crux of the lobbying game."

The practice — also in the news of late around BP's cozy relationship with its revolving-door regulators — drew particular attention this spring. Peter Roberson, a former House financial services committee staffer who helped draft legislation regulating derivatives, promptly left to be the chief lobbyist for the world's largest derivatives clearinghouse. Livid committee chairman Barney Frank barred his staff from having contact with Roberson as long as Frank remains chairman.

Obama issued his own lobbying ban when he took office last year, forbidding executive branch officials from lobbying his administration when they leave, and forbidding former lobbyists from working in his administration. But the president's tough language has since been ridiculed for its loopholes, and Frank's outright ban is more an exception than the standard.

CPR doesn't generally offer policy prescriptions (and as Levinthal reminds, lobbying is a right enshrined in the First Amendment). But other advocacy groups have called for toughening rules that govern who can lobby and how much time they must spend "cooling off" after they leave government.

Then there's always public shaming. Back in April, Public Citizen floated a petition aimed at the 47 senators and representatives who aren't seeking re-election this year. It asked them to take a "personal integrity pledge" not to go through the revolving door.

"Upon leaving Congress," the pledge said, "I will not accept employment or a leadership position for two years with any business that lobbies, issues lobby communications, or has hired lobbyists to lobby my office, committee, or staff during my last term."

"Amazingly enough," said Public Citizen's Angela Bradbery, "no one ever took us up on the offer!"