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Cashing In On Congress


Lobbying a lucrative retirement option for lawmakers.

Once upon a time, people ran for Congress to accomplish something.

A quaint view of the passionate, crusading lawmaker entered the national folklore with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a 1939 film directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart in the title role.

No more. For many, Congress is now just a line on the resume that allows them to cash in as big-time lobbyists pressing the interests of unions, environmental groups, Boeing (BA), General Motors (GM), Pfizer (PFE), Chevron (CVX) -- you name it -- on their former colleagues. Many elected officials double their salaries when they retire from Congress and become lobbyists. A skilled ear-bender can run up millions in lobbying fees each year.

Congressional Quarterly, a publication that focuses on Washington politics, reports that 195 lawmakers, or about 36%, have become lobbyists since leaving Congress in 2005.

Call it a working retirement - if you consider talking to old friends work. It's a sweet job, made sweeter by those current members of Congress who write the law for colleagues -- and possibly for themselves, if they plan to cash in by joining the ranks of the K Street lobbyists.

Senators and representatives must wait one year after leaving Congress before becoming lobbyists. But members of Congress can take unused campaign funds with them when they leave office. They can't spend the money on personal matters, but they can donate big bucks to the re-election campaigns of old pals still holding elective office. In short, the money can be used to advance their interests as lobbyists, so this is close to being a distinction without a difference.

But -- heaven forefend! -- don't ask anyone in Congress for special favors, because that would be illegal. Luckily, there are no special favors -- just "earmarks," or public money directed by members of Congress to specific projects or contractors. This is duck soup if you're in Alaska and need $230 million to build a bridge to an island with roughly 50 residents in the southeastern corner of the state. (The "Bridge to Nowhere" was later killed after a flood of newspaper editorials condemned it and "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central mocked it.)

Earmarks underscore the beauty of writing current rules with an eye on life after Congress. In the past, earmarks generally involved old-fashioned pork-barrel spending on public-works projects in a lawmaker's district. Now, they've become favors attached to spending bills for industries or companies that have lobbied to catch the ear of a member of Congress. In 1994, there were 4,126 earmarks. In 2005, the number peaked at 13,492. Democrats pledged to cut the number in half after regaining control of Congress in 2006, but members of both parties still managed to find 11,738 vital projects to fund.

Typically, earmarks are dropped into committee reports and aren't part of the bill that lands on the president's desk. Technically, Congress didn't approve the earmarks and the president didn't sign them into law. In practice, however, earmarks carry the force of law.

This year, earmarks totaled about $60 billion. Think of it as a down payment on the future comfort of retired members of Congress and those elected officials who plan to retire comfortably. The only losers: those who foot the bill -- us.

Lobbying after a long career in Congress is a bipartisan affair and it sure beats living on a pittance from Social Security, or the $121,350 annual pension a member of Congress who retired in December 2006 after 30 years in office would receive through the Civil Service Retirement System.

After 35 years in Congress, Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi called it quits. "Trish and I have decided it's time for us to do something else," he said last November.

"Something else" meant opening a lobbying firm with former Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana in Washington.

It wasn't always this way. After 24 years in Congress, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat, retired to his upstate farm after leaving Congress and continued to write books. Bill Frist, the former Senate majority leader from Tennessee and a heart surgeon, kept his promise to serve only two terms and returned to Nashville after the 2006 election.

Lobbying gets a lot of catcalls, but everyone has the right to petition the government - and it is protected speech.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper." But he added, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Those who fret about the untoward influence of money in politics, such as Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, seek to enact endless laws to limit free speech in the name of political purity. The simple student might flip this around and suggest that the way wring money out of politics is to make Washington less vital to the success or failure of the nation's economy.

Fat chance. The District of Columbia leviathan grows geometrically. What the heck, members of Congress need the work; as lobbyists, they can look forward to a fat retirement bending the law in their client's favor. Perhaps that's what candidates mean when they say they're running "to make a difference" - apparently after taking Campaigning & Empty Promises 101.

Imagine: all Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith wanted was a national boys' camp.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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