For outgoing lawmakers, connections mean chance to cash in
This story was written in conjunction with the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., easily won a tenth term to Congress in November. Less than a month later, she said she was stepping down for a better offer.
Emerson will become the president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a lobbying group that represents more than 900 federally-subsidized, not-for-profit electric utilities. Emerson said in a statement that she was leaving Congress not "because I have lost my heart for service," but rather because the job offered "a new way to serve."
Since 1998, the NRECA has spent nearly $49 million on lobbying and has been one of the biggest overall donors to federal elections. It has been the top contributor to Emerson dating back to her start in Congress in 1996, having given her nearly $80,000 over that period.
We don't know how much Emerson will be paid to run the lobbying group that has long supported her political career. But it's safe to assume that it will be a step up from the $174,000 she makes as a member of Congress: The group paid former CEO Glenn English - also a former member of Congress - $1.6 million, according to its tax filings.
Emerson will not be a lobbyist -- yet. Members of the House (and their top staffers) are legally barred from registering as lobbyists for one year after leaving Congress. For senators and their top staff, the waiting period is two years. But just because you aren't registered as a lobbyist doesn't mean you aren't engaging in activity that could be considered lobbying - or, as in Emerson's case, are overseeing what is essentially a lobbying organization with a budget of more than $136 million.
And the lines are blurry. A former lawmaker not registered as a lobbyist could visit a current member on the House floor, so long as he or she doesn't specifically lobby the current member at the time. (The current member, of course, is almost certainly aware of the former member's new job.) And away from the actual House floor, all bets are off -- meetings can occur in offices, boardrooms and steakhouses. Doors are opened for a former member (quite literally) that allow discussions and views to be expressed that far exceed the access the general public, or even former staffers have.
Even if the former member isn't communicating personally with members, he or she brings an immense Rolodex and instant credibility that helps others get meetings and phone calls returned. In Emerson's 16 years in office, she interacted with hundreds of other members and thousands of staffers, many of whom are still on Capitol Hill and know her name and will recall her record. Like any member of Congress, Emerson helped other members get their pet bills passed. Indeed, she was seen as a particularly good soldier by party leadership, who allowed her to rise to seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee where she helped steer billions of dollars of cash to or from legislation.
Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, a person must register as a lobbyist if he or she 1.) makes more than $3,000 over three months from lobbying, 2.) has had more than one lobbying contract and 3.) has spent more than 20 percent of his or her time lobbying for a single client over three months. If you don't meet all three of those measures, you don't have to register. That's why former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, never had to register as a lobbyist despite his lucrative position providing "strategic advice" about advancing their goals and connecting health care firms to lawmakers. Gingrich also promoted the companies that were paying him in presentations to lawmakers.
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