From lawmaking to lobbying: Former legislators try a new role after leaving office
Assemblymember Maggie Carlton of Clark County had finished with a committee hearing and was leaving the building. Carlton is an unusual legislator. She served in the Nevada Senate for 12 years until she was term limited out, then she ran for the Assembly, the reverse of the usual progression. In the Assembly, she chairs the environment committee.
As she headed out of the building, lobbyist Terry Care, who has a bill he is trying to shepherd through the Nevada Legislature, was dogging Carlton’s steps. As they passed a security guard who was chatting with lobbyist Len Nevin, Carlton poked her thumb back at Care and joked to the two onlookers, “I’m going to kill his bill!”
As it happens, Carlton, Care and Nevin have all served in the Nevada Senate. Care and Nevin are two of a small coterie of select lobbyists, former legislators who now lobby. Nevin served in the 1980s and ’90s. Care was a senator until last year. He and Carlton served together in the Senate.
Among the ex-legislators who now lobby (see box, page 15), there is more than 150 years of lawmaking experience. (Some, such as the late Jan Evans, have gone the other way, from lobbying to lawmaking.)
Making the transition to lobbyist is not always easy. Some feel uncomfortable the first time they walk into the lobbyists’ room. Some instinctively vote when it is called for—“The hardest thing was when I was sitting in the back … and when they would do the voice votes, I was voting all the time,” lobbyist Helen Foley recalls with a laugh.
It’s also a transition for legislators. Washoe County Sen. Sheila Leslie said, “The rules change. So while you may have had one relationship—legislator to legislator—now, when it’s legislator to lobbyist, that’s a completely different role.”
Foley had been both an assemblymember and a senator when she ran for the U.S. House in Clark County in 1986. She lost narrowly and was out of office because she had given up her senate seat to run for Congress. She went into lobbying at a time when women were coming on strong as lobbyists. As the years have passed, fewer and fewer members of the legislature know that she was once one of them.
As a lawmaker, Democrat Foley showed all the marks of having grown up in one of southern Nevada’s leading political families that includes federal judges and a state attorney general. One of her Republican colleagues, Sue Wagner, once said that she—Wagner—had to make her case on bills laboriously and with heavy emphasis on the pros and cons. Foley, she said, used the merits of her case but also knew how to schmooze other lawmakers and work the informal levers of power. In other words, Foley arrived at the legislature with the skills of an advocate. Moving from lawmaking to lobbying went smoothly. She never felt uncomfortable in the lobbyists’ room.
Others learn on the job. Nevin was a police officer when he was elected to the Assembly, and coaxing was not his strength. There and later in the Senate he learned a softer form of persuasion as he tried to get bills passed. Today, he combines it all—he lobbies for police officers.
But he didn’t go straight from lawmaking to lobbying, and law enforcement wasn’t the initial reason for his moving into lobbying. As a legislator, he chaired the Transportation Committee.
“I get a little worried when I see all the years that I served being destroyed and all the work I’ve done going away,” he said. “Not only me, but other legislators, and that kind of bothers me. We have legislation that we passed—I chaired transportation and a lot of that legislation that we put together is disappearing. It’s all being changed. Those years—12 years in my case—of a lot of hard work, and it just seems to be going away.”
Former legislators often lobby in the areas they specialized in as lawmakers. Foley, for instance, took a lot of interest in HMOs and other health issues during her legislative service. She did not lobby at the first legislature after her terms ended, but worked during that session in the Reno office of the Nevada Hospital Association. Once she did start lobbying, she has usually had health-related clients—Nevadans for Affordable Healthcare, in the current legislature.
In many states, term limits are creating lobbyists out of ex-legislators at a rapid rate. That has not happened in Nevada yet. Term limits just started kicking in a couple of years ago, and most Nevada legislators tire of the process and leave before they are ever term limited. That means institutional memory is lost, and it is something that ex-legislators who lobby can provide. For instance, sometimes new lawmakers like to try things that have already been used in the state and did not work out. When Nevin was asked what lobbyists with lawmaking experience have to offer, he said, “Memory.”
Ask any of the players—legislators, legislators who used to lobby, lobbyists who were never legislators—and it is extremely difficult to get a straight answer on how much influence former legislators have as lobbyists.
Legislators are reluctant to admit they can be swayed by anything other than the merits of a bill. Lobbyists who never served in the legislature are reluctant to concede that any competitor can offer anything better than they can. And former legislators who lobby don’t want publicity that suggests they have special or untoward influence.
As a result, it is difficult to get reliable information on former legislators and their lobbying. It also makes it difficult to assess the claims of critics who want former lawmakers barred from lobbying.
Former assemblymember and senator Ernie Adler argues that the most influential lobbyists are those who can trigger big campaign contributions. “Usually former legislators are not the big campaign contributors,” he said.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the chief advantage enjoyed by the former lawmakers is a knowledge of the process—what a third reading is and the advantage of using a committee of the whole. Lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis, who never served as a legislator, is one of the few willing to concede an advantage to ex-legislators. He said that what lawmakers probably get from former lawmakers is “somebody who knows internally the mechanics of the place and could probably short-cut some things and give much better advice on how to move something quicker, especially if it’s a matter of speed, and knows … what can and can’t be done.”
That’s not unimportant. But it can be a short-lived advantage. Sooner or later, any good lobbyist—former lawmaker or not—will pick those things up.
And the knowledge that a lobbyist once served will fade.
“And as time goes on … I’ll bet three quarters of them don’t even know I was a legislator,” lobbyist and former assemblymember Bill Gregory said. “So certainly, for your first couple sessions, maybe, but as people get replaced—you don’t get to put ‘former legislator’ on your lobby badge.” He laughed. “If you did, maybe that would help. I think it’s overblown, the type of advantage that it really is.”
Being a former legislator certainly makes it easier to pick up clients. “It’s a selling point that I have experience in the legislative process,” Adler said. But that’s a double edged sword. In politics, power fades fast. “As soon as someone is not in office any longer, they’re yesterday’s news,” Foley said. “They don’t wield the power. They might wield the respect if they were a good legislator. They don’t have the power that they had when they were in office.”
Though exact figures are difficult to come by, most ex-legislators certainly make more money as lobbyists. Even here there are exceptions. Former assemblymember Joe Johnson lobbies mostly for environmental groups that can’t pay well. His lobbying falls under the category of good works.
Former legislators tend to have a better sense of legislative etiquette. Gregory said, “I think, too, having been on that side, you know the appropriate way to get to a legislator, the appropriate way to communicate with them, the appropriate way to value their time and when to bother them and when not to.”
They are less likely to lead a legislator into political problems because they generally have a better understanding of political nuances and a willingness to communicate both the benefits and the risks to legislators. They are more likely to tell a legislator, “I’ll be honest with you—there is a downside for you if you support my bill.” And if they fail to alert legislators to political dangers, they are more likely to feel resentment from those legislators.
Maureen Brower, who went from lawmaking to lobbying to being a legislative staffer, said a former legislator probably brings a more open and candid dialogue to lobbying. Lawmakers, she said, expect former legislators not to shade the truth in their sales pitches.
“For me, a more critical factor is whether I can count on the lobbyist to tell the truth,” said Leslie. “The lobbyists I prefer are the ones who … don’t try and hide the inconvenient facts about their argument. I’d much rather hear from people, ‘This is why you should vote for it, and this is what the opponents would say about it,’ and have that kind of a discussion.”
When we spoke with lobbyists, former legislators were far more likely to be aware of this desire. When they described their lobbying techniques, they tended to be very close to the kind of approach Leslie described, sometimes in the same terms.
“I think if you’ve been in the legislature you tend to be more candid with people, tell them exactly what’s going on, actually both sides of an issue,” said Adler. “I find if I’m trying to lobby an issue or represent an issue, I try and tell the legislator not only what my arguments are but what the opposition arguments are, too. You don’t want to put them in a difficult position where you’ve only given them one side of the facts.”
Foley: “Strategically, it benefits me if I can not only give them my point of view, but say, ‘but you will be hearing from the other side, who will say such-and such,’ so that I can give the counterargument and then dispel it if I can. It makes political sense.”
If former legislators have an advantage over other lobbyists, they also have a handicap that other lobbyists do not: They have a history with other legislators and bring their own baggage to the relationship. “Sometimes it works against you, because it could be a legislator who you had issues with,” Leslie said.
“In fact, I got to tell you, in some cases it’s proven to be a disadvantage because there’s still battle wounds from previous legislative sessions,” said Vassiliadis.
Around the nation most states have enacted cooling-off periods under which former legislators must wait a certain number of years before they can lobby. Gregory said, “At the end of the day, I don’t think [lobbying by ex-legislators] gets you any special favors or special treatment, but I certainly understand the concern [that causes cooling-off periods].”
But one peculiarity of the arguments of critics of the practice is that they rarely spell out what is wrong with it. Rather, they seem to assume the impropriety of the practice and, instead of making the case against it, use emotionally loaded terms to condemn it—“revolving door,” “ hired guns,” “cashing in,” “insider deals.” And often they fall back on “the appearance of impropriety.”
Take, for example, “Statehouse revolvers,” a position paper of the Center for Public Integrity that is harshly critical of the practice. In 2,413 words spread over five pages, the paper never clearly explains what is wrong with former legislators lobbying. It is filled with verbiage like this:
“Ex-legislators often start boutique shops or join established blue-chip firms as a name partner. Among those registered to lobby in 2005, more than 200 signed up under a lobbying firm or consulting group that included their name in the title. Others were hired by companies on a contract basis or became staff members of companies and associations looking for a voice at the statehouse. As lobbyists, they work to further the interests of companies and organizations as diverse as the 162,000 state bills introduced nationwide last year. Their clients run the gamut of special interests: from private companies to public schools, from trade associations to labor unions, from political watchdogs to political parties.”
OK, but what’s wrong with that? Other lobbyists also work as contract advocates and other lobbyists also represent diverse special interests. None of those things are indictable offenses, and if it is unethical, how?
In Nevada, there has not been a lot of criticism of the practice. Even supporters of a Nevada cooling-off period think it would mainly address public concern rather than known abuses. “Actually, I think a cooling off period is a good idea in term of the public’s perception,” Leslie said.
In the absence of local criticism of the legislator-as-lobbyist practice, we looked elsewhere.
A group called Ohio Citizen Action produced a report that reads in part: “Many prominent lobbyists learned the inner workings of government as public servants before moving on to lobbying.” That’s quite true, but it does not say what’s improper about that scenario. And if legislators are faulted for that, they would have a lot of company—officials at all levels of government later go into lobbying.
In Florida, Common Cause Florida director Ben Wilcox said, “It hurts the average citizen. It’s like a little club. People use their experience and contacts for the benefit of special interests that are able to hire them. It skews the decisions.” Again, while it’s easy to understand why this inspired resentment, Wilcox does not spell out what is unethical about this.
In Minnesota, Sen. John Marty said the camaraderie among legislators gives lawmakers-turned-lobbyists an advantage. “It’s not the healthiest way for us to make our decisions because there are friendships there,” he said. “People who are your former colleagues become friends, and they have a little more sway with you than somebody else does, and I don’t think that serves the people of Minnesota well.” But one of the things lobbyists specialize in, whether former legislators or not, is forming relationships with those they lobby. One Nevada Trial Lawyers lobbyist used to swap recipes with the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the close confines of a tightly-scheduled 120-day legislature held in a small building, relationships form fast.
Common Cause national vice president Mary Boyle, raises a different concern: “If you’re eyeballing a job while you’re a legislator, and you’re casting votes on public policy issues, are you doing so in the interest of the public, or to impress a potential employer?”
Now we’re getting somewhere. If lawmakers treat their tenure as auditions for lobbying jobs, the public would certainly be injured. On this issue, the Center for Public Integrity is more helpful, providing a half dozen examples of legislators who seemed to do just that. In Oregon, Sen. Paul Phillips was fined $17,000 for allegedly seeking favorable tax treatment of Nike in order to cultivate a future lobbying position. Phillips later did lobby for Nike. Several state legislators proposed and in some cases won passage of legislation favorable to companies or industries they later signed up as lobbying clients.
In August 2007, Sen. Mark Amodei shocked even the Nevada political world by resigning from his law firm to become executive director of the Nevada Mining Association, an industry advocacy group, without resigning his senate seat. The legislature was not in session at the time, so there was no voting conflict, but legislators must continue working as lawmakers on study committees between legislatures. Moreover, advocate lobbies like the NMA are political players, in a position to affect legislative and other political races. (Lobbyists often have a role in advising their clients where to put campaign contributions in political races, and the opinions of ex-legislators are particularly valued because of their campaign experience.)
There are pitfalls to a cooling-off period. For example, if former legislators are subjected to it, what basis can there be for sheltering others who learned their lobbying as government officials? For instance, there are at least two former Nevada governors’ chiefs of staff who now lobby, which was one of their duties in the governor’s office. There are also former state department heads, local officials who lobbied lawmakers on behalf of their municipalities, former legislative staffers and so on among groups that go into lobbying. (Not all legislators go straight from legislating to lobbying, in effect cooling off on their own, as with Foley and Nevin.)
In truth, former legislators are probably less “hired guns” than other lobbyists. The reason they were in politics in the first place was because they had strong feelings about issues and public policy, and so they are less likely to sell their skills to just anyone. “I can’t take on clients that I don’t believe in, because I’m very passionate about convincing legislators that what I’m asking them is the right way to go,” Foley said. “And I couldn’t do that if it wasn’t something that I would support myself.”