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The Revolving Door: Lawmaker To Lobbyist

trent lott
CBS
He did everything from lead the Senate to sing in a group called the Vocal Majority.

Then last fall, after 35 years in Congress, Trent Lott, R-Miss., made a surprise announcement: he was quitting, CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

"Trish and I have decided it's time for us to do something else," Lott said on Nov. 26, 2007.

"Something else" turned out to be lobbying.

Lott joined up with another former senator, John Breaux, D-La., to open their own firm in a Washington, D.C. office building. Ex-members of Congress can double their earnings as lobbyists, paid by special interests to directly influence their former colleagues.

And guess what those former members of Congress can take with them to their big lobby jobs: their leftover campaign funds, unspent money given by donors during their election.

Ethics rules prohibit spending it for personal use... but you won't believe what ex-members of Congress are allowed to do with their campaign money: donate it as lobbyists to their former colleagues.

Lott had a whopping $1.3 million left in his reelection fund when he quit the Senate and opened his lobby firm. One of the first big clients to jump aboard was Northrop Grumman, which is lobbying to keep a $35 billion air force contract for plane re-fuelers.

Lott has dipped into his campaign chest to donate money to former colleagues, who could influence the Northrop Grumman deal, including Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Roger Wicker, who sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He's also contributed to the Senate's top Republican Mitch McConnell.

Government watchdog Sheila Krumholz says it's perfectly legal … but shouldn't be.

"Not only do they have incredible access to their former colleagues, but they can give out money to those colleagues to keep the doors open," said Krumholz.

Krumholz's group, the Center for Responsive Politics, says more lawmakers than ever are moving through that golden revolving door from Congress to lobbyist, and then using leftover campaign funds on Capitol Hill.

According to Congressional Quarterly, 195 members have crossed over to lobbying since 2005.

Is this a way of getting around election law that says they shouldn't personally benefit from the funds?

"I think it is," Krumholz said. "I think it's a distinction almost without difference."

Lott wouldn't agree to an interview but has said he's merely donating to Republicans he believes in, not trying to win favors.

Whatever the reason, with the revolving door spinning faster than ever, it means more leftover campaign funds converted and carried over into the lobby world … Washington style.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.