The Revolving Door

Washington officials depart from the Hill for lobbying jobs
In early February, Representative Jane Harman of California’s 36th district in West L.A., announced her retirement from public service to pursue a career as the CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. As the Blue Dog Democrat departed, grumblings about a “revolving door” began to circulate across the news networks. Congresswoman Harman is not the first to leave public office to work in the more lucrative private sector, nor will she be the last. In fact, she joins a long list of attrition common in our nation’s capital.

Lobbying is a standard part of politics in the United States. The trend of politicians leaving government positions to take more profitable jobs in lobbying is equally commonplace. Of the 354 living former members of Congress, 320 have become lobbyists. This “Revolving Door” phenomenon affects those who work for members of Congress as much as the members of Congress themselves. The Center for Responsive Politics found that of the roughly 990 current Chiefs-of-Staff and Legislative Directors on Capitol Hill, at least 130 held one, if not several, lobbying positions prior to their current positions. Clearly, lobbying is politics in the United States.

The values that grease the brass on the revolving door are not those that our highest officials should hold. The back-scratching value system in Washington trades favors like poker chips from long lost colleagues in a sea of public attrition. This leads to a large disconnect between Washington and the American public. While politicians and their former colleagues turned lobbyists debate issues such as budget cuts on national radio programs, the public waits for Washington to confront serious issues.

It is easy to understand why each year, hundreds of workers in political offices in Washington leave through the revolving door. Lobbying positions are often closely related to the policy these government employees specialize in, which nurtures close ties between these employees and the industry respective to their expertise. These connections lead to job offers for government officials before they even consider leaving the public sector. The promises of a solid wage, less hectic lifestyle and secure position all add to the enticing nature of the offers. On top of all of this, the revolving door process is paid for by taxpayers and consumers, compounded continuously each year.

Although the rest of the country views Washington, D.C. as a place where important policy decisions should be carefully deliberated, the capital’s political players mingle with lobbyists like they are business partners. After all, politicians are human, and may easily fall for lobbyists’ bait. The largest piece of legislation blocking a politician from allying with a lobbying organization exempts many high-level positions, including that of the vice president, the Attorney General and senators. The incentive to work with interest groups is high, the risk low and the reward lucrative.

Lobbying is illegal in nearly every other country in the world. There is a “totally different private and public relationship in the US than in any other nation,” says Myung-koo Kang, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna. “Usually, the public sector has had a much more prevalent role in shaping politics, but from the beginning in the US, the public sector had to be created over the private sector, not the other way around.”

Americans prefer the private sector. For example, US private universities are widely accepted as academically superior to public institutions. In all other parts of the world, public universities top the charts. Charitable institutions are also privatized to a hugely successful degree. Private foundations are enormous in the United States, far greater than in Western Europe and Australia. In contrast, most nations support the public through public charities or similar social welfare programs. These two examples show the same thing – the revolving door is not a Washington hiccup. It is an extension of an American tendency to hold the private over the public sector.

To truly have a discussion on how to fix the American revolving door phenomenon is to have a discussion about this paradigm of American politics. This problem is not currently as daunting nor as pressing as the current crisis in the Middle East or the budget crisis. Nonetheless, the presence of the revolving door may reveal a deeper problem with the private sector’s dominance of American politics and the threat such influence poses to effective government.

Quinn Chasan is a junior government major at CMC. Last semester, he worked as an intern on the Hill as part of the Washington Program. Being Jewish, he's always right. Before you take issue with the above article, remember that fact. Then call him or email him @ QChasan13@cmc.edu

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