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Which members of Congress become lobbyists? The ones with the most power. Here’s the data.

- January 15, 2016
Since leaving Congress, former House majority leader Eric Cantor has become a lobbyist. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

When former House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his 2014 primary race and resigned his office, he got a lot of media attention. What he has been up to since then has gotten less attention: He became a managing director at the investment banking firm Moelis & Co., helping to found the company’s Washington office.

Cantor wasn’t the only powerful member of the House who left office that year and began lobbying. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), and George Miller (D-Calif.), all left the chamber after several decades of service and stints as chairmen of powerful committees and subcommittees: Waxman had chaired both the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight and the Energy and Commerce Committee; Kingston, an Appropriations subcommittee; and Miller, the Education and Labor Committee. All three began lobbying virtually right away.

This pattern is pretty typical for the House of Representatives. The most powerful members of Congress are also the most likely to become lobbyists later on.

Which members of the House walk through the revolving door?

In our forthcoming article in Interest Groups & Advocacy, “Who Walks Through the Revolving Door? Examining the Lobbying Activity of Former Members of Congress,” Amy McKay, Lindsey Herbel and I undertake the first systematic examination of which former Congress members are most likely to lobby after leaving Congress. We do this by examining the lobbying activity of every member who left the chamber between 1976 and 2012.

In the House, we find that the factors that make a member powerful in the chamber are also some of the best predictors of whether a member lobbies after retiring: seniority, being a party leader, being a committee chair, and being a member of a powerful committee. Apparently, lobbying firms are looking to recruit (formerly) powerful House members.

It’s different in the Senate. 

We were surprised to find that this isn’t the case in the Senate. For senators, membership on a powerful committee doesn’t predict lobbying activity, nor does seniority. Holding a committee chairmanship does, but only for Democrats. Only holding a party leadership position significantly predicts lobbying activity for all former senators.

We suspect that this is because institutional power and influence in the Senate is distributed so much more evenly than it is in the House. In the upper chamber, you don’t need to be on a powerful committee to be a powerful senator. Every senator can significantly influence what goes on in that chamber.

As a result, the most senior senators who retired after 2014 did not go into lobbying. Carl Levin (36 years in the Senate, chairman of the Armed Services Committee) now teaches at Wayne State University in his home state of Michigan. John Rockefeller (30 years in the Senate, chair of the Committee of Veterans’ Affairs) now holds a position at the Council on Foreign Relations. But 12-year senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and six-year senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) now lobby for Venable and Deere & Co., respectively.

Party and ideology don’t make a difference.

A few things that we examined appear to make little difference in whether a member of Congress goes off to lobby.

For instance, it doesn’t matter whether someone served in the House or the Senate; slightly more than a quarter of both chambers’ alumni became lobbyists after leaving Congress.

Party affiliation doesn’t make much difference, either. Twenty-nine percent of House Republicans and 26 percent of House Democrats became lobbyists after retiring. In the Senate, the party difference is sharper (38 percent to 25 percent), but still not statistically significant.

Nor does ideology matter much. Whether we’re looking at the divide between liberal and conservative or moderate and extreme, congressional alumni of all ideological stripes appear to become lobbyists at roughly the same rate.

Where do they lobby?

Where do these former legislators work in their lobbying careers? There are four types of organizations (given with examples from the retirement class of 2014):

  • A lobbying firm. That’s where, for instance, Pryor and Kingston went to work.
  • A private corporation that does its own lobbying. Johanns, who represented the heavily agricultural state of Nebraska and who served on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, now works for agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere. Miller now works for the educational technology company Cengage Learning.
  • A trade association. For instance, former congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson, who served on the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for rural development while in Congress, is now the director of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association).
  • Or a nonprofit organization. For instance, former Rep. Jo Bonner now lobbies for the University of Alabama.

Of the former members of Congress who go on to lobby after retiring from Congress, the vast majority (78 percent of former House members and 87 percent of former senators) lobby for firms. We do not investigate why this is so, but presumably firms offer high pay.

But not all former members who lobby go this route. A third of them attempt to start their own firms or join a family firm. For instance, Waxman joined his son’s firm, Waxman Strategies.

The “revolving door” that brings lobbyists and high-level government officials into each other’s line of work is a huge and growing part of Washington. There are serious normative implications, and plenty of research questions out there to pursue. Before undertaking that research, we need to know which and how many government officials are taking part. This study is an important first step in untangling the web of influence and implications of this relatively recent phenomenon.

Note added on Jan. 20, 2016: Kingston and Waxman are registered lobbyists. However, in a display of how lax lobbying requirements are, neither Miller nor Cantor are registered as lobbyists despite the facts that: both live and work in Washington D.C.; Miller works directly on public policy issues; and Cantor interacts with current members of Congress on a regular basis.

Jeffrey Lazarus is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.