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Congress: Training Ground for State’s Power Brokers

Before election to Congress, all California politicians promise to work full time for the voters back home.

But once seduced by Capitol Hill’s corrupt culture, old promises are forgotten and replaced by a new passion for wealth and power. Forget the myth about public service. Congress is now a springboard for aspiring $500 an hour Washington power brokers, officially known as lobbyists.

According to a recent study by Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, since 1990 the following members of Congress from California have become Washington lobbyists: William Baker, Brian P. Bilbray, James Corman, Bill Dannemeyer, Ronald Dellums, Calvin Dooley, Vic Fazio, Steven Kuykendall, Richard Lehman, Mel Levine, William David Lowery, Dan Lungren, Ron Packard, Leon Panetta, Jerry Patterson, Frank Riggs and James Rogan.

The study, “Congressional Revolving Doors: The Journey from Congress to K Street,” found that since 1998, 50 percent of all departing U.S. representatives who were eligible to become lobbyists have done so. The eligibility count excluded members elected from one house of Congress to another, and members taking jobs in the executive branch. Congress has become a tax-supported finishing school for get-rich-quick Washington lobbyists.

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Once elected, representatives and senators can go in one of two directions. They can remain loyal to the folks who sent them to Washington and work to make sure Californians get a fair shake on Capitol Hill. Or they can put their own personal interests, and those of special interests, ahead of the voters.

Here is how “public servants” waste federal tax money and sway voters on their way to K Street, home to America’s most powerful lobbying firms.

Building a network of Washington pals takes time. So, once elected, K Street-bound members use your tax dollars to win future elections. This is done by “earmarking,” or slipping hometown projects into federal spending bills , often for local roadways, bridges and pedestrian ways.

These “pork” projects may have no national significance, but they sure can make Congress members look good in the next election. This explains why pork projects grow faster than kudzu in Georgia. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed a highway bill containing a total of 152 earmarks because, he said, it contained too much pork.

But in the federal highway bill recently signed by President Bush, the California congressional members alone added 546 such projects costing $2.6 billion. Nationwide, this pork-larded highway bill contains more than 6,000 that’s right, 6,000 , earmarks costing U.S. taxpayers about $24 billion.

Elected officials have two big assets , channeling tax dollars to, and granting favorable government breaks for, special interest groups. By doing favors for influential groups, members of Congress “buy,” at the voters’ expense, a network of pals who then show their appreciation by making large re-election campaign contributions to the officeholder.

This network of friends will then become the client base for the congressman-turned-lobbyist.

Ex-members of Congress with the right contacts inside Congress and a list of interest groups needing favors from Uncle Sam are always in demand. After all, Washington’s K-Street lobbying firms are in the business of selling government access.

But here again, taxpayers foot the bill for door-opening congressmen-turned-lobbyists. Each “win” for the lobbyist is almost certainly a loss for the taxpayer.

Consider the case of Robert Livingston, a House member from Louisiana who, after leaving Congress, opened his own Washington lobby shop. From 1999 to 2004, according to Congress Watch, Livingston’s firm earned $37 million from more than 100 demanding clients, including the U.S. Oil & Gas Association; the Southern Shrimp Alliance; the National Milk Producers Federation; Lockheed Martin Corp.; MCI WorldCom; General Electric; and Chevron Texaco.

If these clients received their money’s worth, at least $37 million (and probably much more) in tax funded favors were exchanged for the millions that went into Livingston’s pocket.

And Livingston carefully keeps his Capitol Hill network up to date. Between 2000 and 2004, he, and organizations he controls, contributed more than $500,000 to some 100 House and Senate members up for re-election. When he knocks on behalf of a client needing a government favor, Livingston makes sure the door will open wide.

This well-worn revolving door corrupts Congress, which was once a watchdog for the taxpayer. What if members of Congress spent less time feathering their own nests and more time tending to legitimate public projects? Maybe, just maybe, someone would have noticed that the $500,000 Congress appropriated in 1997 for the preparation of an evacuation plan for New Orleans was spent instead on a bridge across Lake Ponchartrain.


Ronald Fraser writes on public policy for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties organization.

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