Sen. Trent Lott's surprise resignation this week set off a leadership shuffle in Senate GOP ranks – and talk that the No. 2 Republican is cashing in his 35 years on Capitol Hill for a K Street lobby shop.
It's rare for a US senator to resign during a term of office for reasons other than health, scandal, or quest for higher public office. It's happened only twice since World War II.
Moreover, Senator Lott's resignation takes effect just before a new ethics law kicks in that will extend the "cooling off" period – from one year to two – before an ex-lawmaker can lobby former colleagues.
Asked whether the new law had a role in his decision to step down, Lott said "it didn't have a big role in that decision."
Even under the terms of the new law, Lott explained, it remains possible for former members to use their expertise on K Street soon after leaving office. "As I've talked to my former colleagues, they say that a lot of what you do anyway is involved with consulting rather than direct lobbying," he added at a press briefing Monday in his hometown of Pascagoula, Miss.
A worrisome interpretation
That understanding of the new law worries public-interest groups working to slow down the "revolving door" between Congress and K Street lobbying firms.
"The question is, whose interests are they representing: the people who elected them or the employer who will be signing their paycheck in a couple of months," says Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington.
"We tried to come up with disclosure requirements and a cooling-off period to make things more ethical, but if you're going to go around the rules, there's nothing we can do at this point."
Former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana set off a firestorm when he resigned the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and retired from the House to accept a job as head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). While still serving in the House, Mr. Tauzin was a key player in negotiating terms of the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug law, which included protections for the drug industry. The new lobbying law aimed to make it harder for lawmakers to make such a move in the future.
'Consulting' versus 'lobbying'
The prospect that Lott or any other lawmaker would be "consulting" with clients, as opposed to "lobbying" to influence legislation on Capitol Hill, is a distinction without much of a difference, critics say.
"The line between lobbying and consulting has always been left intentionally ambiguous by Congress," says Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law School. "It's the most important loophole to many members."
He adds, "The new cooling-off period is unlikely to make a significant impact on the revolving-door problem. If Congress really wanted to do that, they should more carefully define the meaning of lobbying."
Since 1998, about 43 percent of lawmakers who left office have become lobbyists, according to 2005 report by Public Citizen's Congress Watch. In the Senate, half of eligible departing members become lobbyists.
When Sen. Albert "Happy" Chandler (D), who resigned in 1945 to become commissioner of Major League Baseball, was asked why he was leaving the Senate midterm, "he whispered his new salary, which was three times his Senate salary," says Senate historian Donald Richey. Today, the gap between a senator's annual salary, $162,500, and compensation on K Street can be much higher.
"For a top Senate aide with connections, starting pay as a lobbyist could be more than $300,000. And for a recent ex-senator and long-time majority leader [such as Lott], the number might be more like $1 million," says Michael Munger, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Institutional know-how counts
Even though Republicans are currently the minority party on the Hill, one with Lott's experience can be a valuable asset to clients seeking to influence legislative outcomes, especially in the Senate where a single member with an understanding of the institution can block things.
"If you want to move things in the House, you need to get to leadership. But what a lot of corporations want is to prevent things they see as harmful. If you want to block legislation, a real knowledge of Senate rules is invaluable, and Trent Lott has deep strategic knowledge," adds Mr. Munger.
Nearly five years after resigning as Senate majority leader over a remark that many viewed as racist, Lott had worked his way back into GOP leadership and the respect of colleagues.
He had considered not running for reelection in 2006, but said that the devastation to his home state wrought by hurricane Katrina helped to change his mind.
"They didn't quit, so I couldn't quit," he said Monday at the briefing. But now, he said, he and his wife, Tricia, "do think that there is time left for us to maybe do something else."
Lott is the sixth senator in the current Congress to announce retirement or resignation – and all are Republicans.
In the House, 12 Republicans and two Democrats have announced that they will be retiring in 2008. In addition, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois made his resignation official, effective on Monday.