Being in Congress used to be a career, now it's a stepping stone. All the cool kids want to get out. Many of them want to be president. But a lot more want to be lobbyists.
The latest legislator-turned-lobbyist is Richard Baker, a Louisiana House member who was the second-ranking Republican on the Committee on Financial Services, a coveted gig in political eras past. But it's a piker's job compared to Baker's new set-up as head of the Managed Funds Association, the hedge fund industry's trade group.
Another bayou Republican, Jim McCrery, just gave up an even better post as the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. McCrery is just 58 years old, Baker is 59. Both could have had long runs as Congressional czars.
Trent Lott, once the Senate Majority Leader, just quit to open a lobbying shop with a Democratic dealmaker, John Breaux who used to represent Louisiana in the Senate.
A generation ago it would have been unthinkable for young, powerful legislators to willingly leave Congress unless it was for other public service. Power and glory came with seniority and expertise. Now it's the norm to get out young.
There are problems with this, but they aren't the ones that get discussed.
The usual complaint is that lobbying is sleazy and the revolving door corrupts Congress. But if you think about it, lobbying isn't sleazy or improper. What is sleazy and improper is when lawmakers succumb to lobbying for bad reasons. The vice of today's faster revolving door is not that it makes the lobby more powerful, but that it makes the Congress less powerful.
Since at least Watergate, the mission of reformers and do-gooders has been to stem the flow of money into politics and the access of petitioners to the powerful. This goes against human nature and thus, will continue to fail.
It's time for a fresh and radical approach. Instead of beating up on lobbyists, we should try building up legislators. We should give them huge pay raises, perks and expense accounts. We should immunize them from special-interest infections. We should give them what in the business world is called "f --- you" money. Really.
Members of Congress will make $169,300 in 2008. That may sound like a lot, but for people who must maintain two residences and who constantly hobnob with the rich and famous, it doesn't feel like a lot. First-year associates at big Washington law firms make that much.
The campaign finance system already forces politicians to be perpetual grovelers. Must we force them to hustle for baseball tickets and t-bones as well?
Senators should make at least a million and House members at least $750,000, probably more. They should have huge private accounts and travel budgets so that they would never be tempted by a junket, feast or floozy financed by a lobbyist. They should be able to pay their staff big bucks so they could hire the almost-best and nearly-the-brightest.
Now a million dollars a year wouldn't come close to putting a senator in the financial class of Big Ten football coach, a mid-level investment banker or a local TV anchor. But it's a decent wage.
The goal here is to create what Congress once had: tyrants.
This might seem counter-intuitive and undemocratic but it isn't. Think about who modern legislators have to face off against: CEOs making $5-55 million a year; hedge fund managers who can make $500 million a year; retired Senators making $2 million a year lobbying; plus a full cast of labor bosses, civil rights leaders, oil sultans, petty despots, governors and cabinet members.
You need legislative tyrants to do that work properly. You need the people with fiefdoms, clout, bureaucratic savvy and policy expertise to balance other great powers in society. The 20th century Congress produced a steady stream of people - Dirksens, Mansfields and Fulbrights. No more. It's time to invest.
The time is ripe for something bad to happen at the intersection of Power & Money.
The economy is on the verge of recession. Inflation is up and so is unemployment. Office-seekers want to somehow stimulate the economy, Democrats with spending, Republicans with tax cuts. The government is running deficits and borrowing from foreign sources, the same foreign sources that are bailing out U.S. financial institutions. Wealth is as concentrated as it has ever been in American history.
That is a perfect storm for either scandal or terrible legislation - or both.
I'd feel better if we had a gaggle of smart, mean old men and women who had been around forever - who didn't care who they offended, who weren't getting set to cash in - standing guard over our Capitol and our capital.
E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer