Yesterday, Tim noted that Rep. Barney Frank, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, has banned the committee's staff from contact with Peter Roberson, a former staffer who went from writing legislation on things like credit-default swaps to working for a company that handles credit-default swaps. Tim is skeptical that such a ban will have much of an impact on the influence of lobbyists, and I agree. Like most well-intentioned process reform ideas, it comes off sounding like, "This isn't really going to help much, but we might as well try." And in the end it usually doesn't help much.
As everyone knows, the Capitol Hill revolving door works this way: You work in Congress for a few years, learning the ways and means of our law-making machinery, then cash in by taking that knowledge with you to a lobbying firm. This system is half-heartedly condemned by just about everyone. After all, lobbying is right there in the First Amendment -- you have the right "to petition the Government for redress of grievances." And there are all kinds of lobbyists. Some lobby for foreign dictators and domestic tax-avoiding corporations, but some also lobby on behalf of things like the victims of human-rights abuses, environmental protection, and food safety.
In any case, what lobbyists are selling their clients is not just their knowledge of the legislative system but also their relationships. And no relationship is more important than those with their former bosses. One of the things the Abramoff scandal brought to light was how some influential members of Congress had a whole network of former staffers who had built businesses on their connections to that member, like satellites of influence orbiting a favor-doling sun.
But what was surprising about this story was the fact that Frank actually went out and publicly blasted a former staffer for becoming a lobbyist. "When Mr. Roberson was hired," Frank said, "it never occurred to me that he would jump so quickly from the committee staff to an industry that was being affected by the committee's legislation." I can't ever recall a member of Congress going after a staffer like that for becoming a lobbyist.
So who knows, maybe things really are changing in Washington! Probably not, though.
-- Paul Waldman
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