Ka-ching! It’s Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott’s turn to trade in his U.S. Capitol pin for cold hard cash on K Street.
The Mississippi Republican announced his resignation plans on Monday and, according to people close to him, the senator is kicking around a couple of private-sector options.
A near-certain scenario has him teaming up with his son, lobbyist Chester Lott, founder of Lott & Associates. Another, still fluid, idea is partnering with former Louisiana Democratic Sen. John Breaux, who is said to be mulling a departure from the lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs. Breaux did not return calls for comment.
Of a Lott-Breaux partnership, one lobbyist quipped: “The only real question would be whether they would hire Brinks to bring in the money every day.”
The Lott resignation and its fallout offer a striking, if somewhat unusual, glimpse at how incestuous the relationships between lobbyists and politicians have become in recent years.
In a nutshell, the story goes like this: A U.S. senator resigns to become a lobbyist, a former lobbyist (Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour) is in charge of naming his replacement, and a lead candidate to fill the slot (Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering) finds himself in a complicated spot, since he recently put in motion his own plan to cash out from the U.S. House.
Maybe it has always been this way, but the dizzying pace of lawmakers-turned-lobbyists these days suggests not.
After all, it was not so long ago that K Street jobs were considered consolation prizes for loser lawmakers — charity cases, if you will, that leaned on the quiet generosity of grateful lobbyists after being rejected by voters or becoming too aged or controversial to remain on Capitol Hill.
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Money changed all that. As the jobs became more lucrative, including million-dollar contracts, lawmakers found it easier to get over any squeamishness about pitching a client’s cause to a former colleague. It also moved up the timing of such a career change, from the closing days of a political career to its twilight to, in Lott’s case, a peak.
“It’s very clear that being able to go and lobby is seen as the upward track,” said Meredith McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Center. “In the old days, you would make money and do these things and then maybe get to run for Congress or the Senate. Today, you run for Congress or the Senate and then, if you’re really good, you can move up to become a lobbyist.”
What’s intriguing in the Lott resignation is precisely how cash-in calculations figured into his career plan.
Lott is at the top of his game. He’s the second-highest-ranking Republican in Congress, despite a near career-ending faux pas a few years ago. Democrats respect him; the White House fears his quirky independence and penchant for payback.
The post-Hurricane Katrina budget haul he brought home and his plucky and successful showdown with State Farm Insurance over his own flood-damaged property make it inconceivable to think he’d be defeated in a 2012 reelection, dead or alive.
So what drove the timing of this talented and politically secure senator’s departure from the chamber? Fear of lost income from a newly passed ethics law that imposes a two-year ban on former senators’ ability to lobby their old colleagues, say Lott’s allies.
The two-year ban takes effect on Jan. 1. Lott’s retirement is effective “by the end of the year,” he said at a news conference in Pascagoula, Miss. In moving up his retirement date, Lott will have to comply with only a one-year ban on lobbying his old Senate chums.
Lott demurred when asked about his future plans. “A lot of options will be available,” he said, joking that he may look into teachingor coaching at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, where he once was a cheerleader.
“We don’t have anything lined up at this time, and I just wanted to make that clear,” he added. (If he did, under the new rules, he’d have to report it to the Senate ethics committee.)
Lott’s replacement will be appointed by Barbour, whose name still is embossed on the stationery at the city’s biggest all-Republican lobbying shop, Barbour Griffith & Rogers.
Barbour today is sure to face much lobbying from his fellow Republicans hungry for a free ticket to the U.S. Senate. But one candidate long deemed the most likely successor to Lott may have disqualified himself with his own post-congressional career plans.
Pickering, a former Lott aide, announced in August that he is retiring from the House next November so he can spend more time with his family, which is code in Washington for getting a job with more free time and a bigger paycheck.
Now, plenty of retired politicians have been lured back into public service out of a sense of “duty” to their country, party or state. But Pickering’s extensive comments about the need to be with his family just a few months ago would make an abrupt about-face to nab a Senate chair seem cruelly self-serving.
“I have a window of opportunity to maximize my time, influence and participation in the lives of my five sons, now ages 8 to 17,” he said. “Time is the one element I can never recover or regain.”
Besides, Lott’s timing also could be disqualifying, since Pickering’s brood is reaching college age. According to sources in the lobbying community, Pickering has expressed interest in joining one of the big law-lobbying firms that dominate downtown.
To be fair, Lott and his allies offer other reasons for his retirement. Republicans aren’t likely to regain control of the Senate anytime soon, and minority life isn’t a bed of roses. The emotional toll of losing his family home and artifacts to Katrina left a searing message that life is precarious.
And, of course, it may not unfold exactly as it appears today. At his press conference, Lott did reveal that he’d “talked to my former colleagues already, and they said what you do anyways is called ‘consulting,’ not direct lobbying.”