Weight in the lobby: Jobs and cash still rule in Washington

A new study found 400 former lawmakers took jobs as federal lobbyists. And Hill staff members also found lucrative work on K Street. To restore the integrity of Congress, more reforms are needed to curb this exploitative practice and corrupting influence.

To raise Congress’s low standing will require that it raise its integrity.

That need is even more urgent with news that nearly 400 former US lawmakers took up lucrative jobs as federal lobbyists over the past decade.

And joining them in this dubious revolving door were more than 5,000 former congressional staff members who also cashed in on their connections to Capitol Hill by being hired as influence peddlers for special interests represented by Washington’s K Street firms.

Meanwhile, according to the Center for Public Integrity, 605 former lobbyists went to work for lawmakers during that same period.

While many of these individuals believed they were still working in the public interest, the appearance of undue influence and big-money politics is too high to let such practices persist. In fact, efforts are expected this fall to improve on recent progress in rules regarding lobbying.

The 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, for example, needs to be changed to broaden the definition of lobbyist to include such jobs as public relations consultants who work on pending legislation or regulations. And the ties between lobbyists and raising campaign money need to be broken. Those ties are easy to make given that there are nearly 12,000 federally registered lobbyists (and untold more who act behind the scenes indirectly).

President Obama came into office hoping to break the corrupting influence of money in Washington and the exploitative nature of the revolving door between Congress and K Street. And his administration has done well by banning lobbyists from taking government jobs or keeping former officials from becoming lobbyists soon after leaving office.

But even Mr. Obama followed in the footsteps of previous presidents by appointing many of those who raised large caches of campaign cash for him to top jobs in the administration. About a third of his more than 500 megadonors – those who bundled large amounts of small donations – or their spouses were given high-level positions like ambassadorships. This looks a lot like the rich can buy a prestigious government job.

In coming weeks, intense lobbying will be on display as dozens of special-interest groups try to influence the “super committee” of 12 lawmakers tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. Much of their work will be on tax reform and entitlements such as Medicare – topics that bring out the big guns of the lobbying world.

A few lawmakers on the panel have committed to not fundraising for campaigns during this period. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts even says he will try to avoid seeing lobbyists while working on the committee.

Such steps in rebuilding the public’s trust in their elected representatives will help restore a sense of fairness and equal access to government for all, and not just for those with big money to throw around the nation’s capital.

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