Lawmaker to Lobbyist: House Democrat Joins March Through Revolving Door
While Capitol politicians defend new career choices, critics charge that such moves breed public cynicism
BOSTON — LAST month, President Clinton signed into law the most sweeping overhaul in 20 years of federal subsidy programs for the nation's 1,000 rural electrical cooperatives. The bill was written by Rep. Glenn English (D) of Oklahoma.
This month, Mr. English announced that he will resign his seat and, on March 1, become chief executive officer of the co-ops' powerful Washington arm, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. In that job, he will lobby administration officials implementing legislation he authored.
English's transition from lawmaker to lobbyist is not unusual. A recent study done by Public Citizen's Congress Watch found that, of 319 senior officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue who retired this year, at least 101 have gone into lobbying.
The largest number have been snapped up by various industries affected by Mr. Clinton's health-care plan.
For instance, former Rep. Willis Gradison (R) of Ohio, a one-time ranking minority member on the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, is now president of the Health Insurance Industry Association.
Many former officials defend their new career choices, saying they have a right to make a living after a lifetime of public service. But Pamela Gilbert, Congress Watch president, says the trend is disturbing: It gives special access to some lobbying groups. And it creates questions about what public officials might be doing to win lucrative jobs while they are still in office. ``It breeds public cynicism about government,'' she says. ``It's very destructive to our political process.''
Attempts to shut the revolving door have failed. Clinton imposed a five-year moratorium on influence-peddling by former administration officials, but loopholes have allowed two top officials to take jobs recently with lobbying organizations.
Former congressmen are bound by a one-year limit on lobbying. But Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma has proposed extending the limit to five years for lobbying lawmakers' former committees and two years for lobbying anyone else in Congress. The bill hasn't left committee, but one Democratic congressional aide says English's recent announcement will bolster the case for reform.
``English is a smart guy,'' this aide says, ``but he's not being hired because of his expertise on electrical cooperatives. He's being hired because of his contacts in Congress....''
English, contacted in Oklahoma where he is cleaning out his office, denies that he will be trading on his influence with former colleagues and administration officials.
The chairman of the House agriculture subcommittee on rural development says much of his new job will involve managing a $90 million organization with 600 employees, most of them involved in running an insurance business. ``When you get right down to it, not very much of what I did in Congress will be directly applicable to this particular job,'' he insists.
But Bob Bergland, outgoing chief executive of the co-op association, disagrees. ``A person knowledgeable in the workings of government has an advantage in this job,'' says the former congressman and President Carter's agriculture secretary.
That's because a good deal of the co-ops' business depends on Uncle Sam. The Rural Electric Administration was set up as part of the New Deal to bring power to backwoods America. Since the country is now electrified, presidents ranging from Reagan to Clinton have called for phasing out REA's subsidies to co-ops. But they have been stymied by co-op support in Congress.
English, who got $4,200 in campaign donations from co-ops last year, has been a key member of what Bergland calls the group's ``faithful band'' on Capitol Hill.
This summer, for instance, the congressman even alienated one of the co-ops' traditional allies - publicly owned utilities - by trying to add an amendment to the budget that would bar cities from annexing co-ops' territory without their permission. After the measure was dropped from the budget at the last minute, English worked closely with co-op lobbyists to overhaul their subsidy programs.
The resulting legislation, passed by the House Sept. 28, trims the co-ops' electrical loan subsidies by 40 percent, from $117 million to roughly $60 million.
To soften the blow, English also pushed through language that, for the first time, would allow co-ops to run rural water districts and tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in federal water subsidies. This gives the co-ops a new lease on life.
``It may be defensible,'' Ms. Gilbert says, ``but it does raise questions about whether English received his new job as a quid pro quo for his activities in Congress.''
English and Bergland deny the charge. Bergland says the association's search for a new chief executive started in June, but he refused to discuss the job with English until after the overhaul legislation had passed.
English, meanwhile, says: ``I didn't apply for the job. They first contacted me in October. I never did think I would be selected.''
English adds that he took the position, which pays ``around'' $200,000 a year, because ``I really enjoy working with rural areas.''
REVOLVING DOOR IN ACTION
Some public officials who have recently gone into lobbying:
* Rep. Robin Talon (D) of South Carolina now works for the Tobacco Institute, which represents cigarette companies.
* Rep. Raymond McGrath (R) of New York, former member of the House Ways and Means Committee, works for the Beer Institute, which lobbies against alcohol taxes.
* Rep. Dennis Eckhart (D) of Ohio, author of Superfund legislation, represents the American Insurance Association on Superfund problems.
* Gerald Riso, a former Education Department official who reversed a decision to cut off financial aid to for-profit trade school Phillips College Inc., now works for the school. --From a September report by Public Citizen's Congress Watch