Those who don't toil inside the Beltway are seen by many who do as hopelessly naive about how things really work in Washington. Where clueless outsiders see inherent conflicts of interest in people moving effortlessly from lobbying to government and back again, savvy insiders patiently explain that this is the real world of power, where expertise is built and recycled. Also, public servants have made a financial sacrifice in a noble pursuit. At some point they must take care of their families, and so they go where their skills are most marketable, which happens to be the capital's myriad lobbying shops and special-interest law firms.
Even if the cognoscenti's view is given its due, however, last year's Medicare reform law must give the rest of us considerable pause. The law-nearly 700 pages of mind- boggling complexity-has given rise to a cottage industry of special interest. Its authors have been streaming in record numbers out of the Capitol and other government buildings and toward K Street, the fabled home of the lobbying world, where they will be assisting legislators and the healthcare industry in making the most of their creation. If you want to know why so many aides, spokespeople and administrators are in such demand, look to the projected price tag of the bill, some $534 billion, and to its lack of spending controls. The business of influence follows the money.
The leader of this exodus is former CMS Administrator Tom Scully. In a phrase that could only arise in Washington, Scully was given an "ethics waiver" to listen to job offers while he was busy crafting the law. Now that he is off in the private sector, he is forbidden from lobbying his former agency for a year, but he can "work the Hill" right away, no waiver from scruples needed.
His hurry to get started on his job search was understandable. Scully told people he would have loved to stay in government service but just couldn't afford this huge sacrifice. Now, to be completely honest, his $140,000 CMS salary was hardly his only asset. He divested up to $1.6 million just in healthcare stock to take on the government job in 2001, made more than $600,000 per year in his prior job running the Federation of American Hospitals and had been on several corporate boards.
Equally troubling is the highly publicized job hunt of Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, a key figure in the Medicare bill negotiations. Though he broke off talks over a $2 million per year offer to run the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America last week, the fact that a sitting chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee would even conduct negotiations for a job with an organization with huge stakes in the outcome of the prescription drug law was frightening. He has since stepped down from the chairmanship, but a spokesman says Tauzin has not ruled out working for PhRMA after he leaves office.
"I have never seen anything close to the public courting of Tauzin by lobbying groups in Washington," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a D.C. insider.
Democrats have seized on the Scully-Tauzin job searches as example of special interests run amok, with presidential front-runner John Kerry calling for a five-year ban on lobbying by ex-government employees. Even some Republicans seemed appalled by the brazenness of the PhRMA-Tauzin talks, and it may have been this kind of pressure that caused Tauzin to back down.
I am not enough of a rube to suggest that this situation is about to change, but at least people are noticing that the revolving door is spinning out of control.
What do you think?
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