It’s an unseemly and mutually beneficial relationship, and one that clearly contributes to the distrustful image of lawmakers.
The revolving door – hopping from a public position such as congressman to a private one that influences legislative action – isn’t something that’s new, but it’s now back in the spotlight.
Former U.S. Rep, Eric Cantor, R-Va., is the latest example after he failed to get re-elected this year and quickly found a high-salary job at an investment bank where his main job duties seem to largely be influencing public policy.
Cantor, whose résumé lacks any substantial investment banking experience, will be paid $3.7 million, quite a jump from his $193,400 salary as House majority leader.
Too often those with influence in Washington, D.C. leave the Beltway and quickly end up in the private sector where they, in turn, help to shape legislation.
This isn’t a Republican or Democratic Party phenomenon. This stretches across both sides of the aisle.
In South Carolina, former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican, resigned in 2013 before his term ended to become president of the Heritage Foundation, one of the leading think tanks in Washington, D.C.. Although he didn’t have to register as a lobbyist, it’s clear DeMint’s goal was to still pull strings with his former colleagues, if only indirectly.
Cantor and DeMint followed in the foosteps of politicians such as former House Majority Dick Gephardt, a Democrat from Missouri, who left his high-profile congressional post to form his own lobbying agency and make millions for clients such as Goldman Sachs and Boeing.
Bob Botsch, a political science professor at USC Aiken, said this revolving door adds to the distrust that so many in the public have toward politicians.
“It definitely hurts the reputation of politicians,” Botsch said. “As long as that image is out there, it’s going to hurt voting participation. It’s going to keep people from looking at political questions in any serious way.”
There’s certainly some concern about restricting where and for whom someone can work. But once an individual decides to represent the public’s interest, there needs to be a reasonable expectation that they won’t use that influence for personal gain or scheming behind the scenes to influence policy.
Congress updated its ethics laws in 2007 after the high profile Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which included illegal influence peddling between a lawmaker and a former aide. So there are measures in place to restrict who can work as lobbyists, but those are still too watered down to be wholly effective.
The revolving door – particularly to K-Street, the major thoroughfare of Washington, D.C. that’s full of think tanks, lobbyists and advocacy groups – has now become too much of an accepted reality.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has become known for her criticism of Wall Street, has been particularly vocal in deriding Cantor’s move to his new position.
In an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Warren asked “How wrong can this be?”She added, “Basically what is happening here is that people work in Washington, and man, they hit that revolving door with a speed that would blind you.”
It’s hard not to see Cantor’s new position as a way to buy access, particularly with the former congressman’s lack of experience in the financial industry.
Politicians already have a bad enough reputation as it is. President Barack Obama’s approval rating hovers in the low-40s, and Congress’ is even worse as it sits in the single digits. Trust in the executive and legislative branches doesn’t seem to be improving anytime soon.
Closing the revolving door would be a strong way to restore some legitimacy to these institutions. Right now, it’s clearly helping to fuel unprecedented levels of distrust in the people we’ve elected to lead our country.