Leaving one job for a better-paying, more-prestigious position is advancement. Leaving public service to join the influence industry in Washington is something else.
When public servants walk through the revolving door to secure positions in lobbying firms and then return to the Capitol to use the expertise and contacts they developed in their years of public employment to exert influence on their former colleagues, they contribute to the concentration of influence that has made so many Americans suspicious of government.
How pervasive is the problem? An informative and provocative book entitled "Beyond the Hill," published last year, describes the whereabouts and activities of 353 former lawmakers who left Capitol Hill between 1984 and 1993. Ninety-three of them, about 1 in 4, became lobbyists.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, since 1974 nearly half of all former US senior trade officials have registered with the Justice Department as lobbyists for foreign agents. That means nearly half the people who served as upper-level trade representatives - people who participated in trade negotiations and who have intimate knowledge of confidential information regarding US trade and business interests - are now sitting on the other side of the negotiating table.
After the '94 elections, there was a blizzard of announcements by government officials who left public service to work for lobbying firms. One aide left her position on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power to work for the lobbying arm of the American Power Association. The former chief of staff to the chairman of the House Transportation Committee now lobbies that committee on behalf of several transportation interests. More recently, a former member of Congress, who sat on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures, joined a Washington lobbying firm as a specialist on tax policy.
Is it any wonder that so many Americans believe major policy decisions affecting their lives are being made by a small, closed circle of acquaintances who have acquired influence - and money - during their years in Washington? The revolving door is part of the machinery of the influence industry that wields so much power over the policymaking process in Washington and over all our lives.
It creates, as the Center for Public Integrity's Charles Lewis puts it, "a permanent ruling class" whose members enjoy an access to one another's offices and ideas that ordinary Americans cannot hope to achieve. Some members of this class even walk through the revolving door several times. They increase the breadth of their influence with each pass until they reach some of the highest levels of government or business.
Many lawmakers and senior staffers have a number of opportunities awaiting them when they leave public service They can enter the world of business, teach, or go back to school. What they should not be doing is trading on the education and experience they acquired serving the public's interest to return in the service of a special interest.
Public employees shouldn't be prevented from finding work in the private sector, or even from becoming lobbyists. But they should be subject to certain limits if they choose that career path.
The present one-year limit is too short. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and I recently added an amendment to a spending bill that would require former members to wait two years before returning to lobby Congress. Not surprisingly, our amendment was quietly dropped when House and Senate negotiators met to craft a final version of the bill.
The tougher limits we seek are not unreasonable. They do not foreclose members or staff from seeking employment in the private sector; they simply restrict certain lobbying activities for a specific time period. Such limits would help restore some measure of trust among Americans that we are working in their interest.
*Russell D. Feingold (D) is a senator from Wisconsin.