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Overdue Bipartisan Push to Tackle DC’s Revolving Door

The phenomenon of American politicians moving into lucrative lobbying positions is becoming an epidemic. In the 1970s, a mere 5 percent of former lawmakers pursued a career selling their insider connections and network of contacts, but that number has risen sharply. According to one study, nearly 60 percent of U.S. Congress members retiring this year have taken on this kind of work.

The situation has become so dire that some of the most diametrically opposed members of Congress have found an area of bipartisan agreement. Republican Senator Ted Cruz and rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have publicly joined forces (via tweet) to propose a lifetime lobbying ban for former lawmakers.

A number of politicians who’ve passed through the revolving door have insisted their new lucrative contracts aren’t incompatible with their Congressional past. Former Representative John Culberson (R-TX), who sat on the House Appropriations Committee which funds NASA, argued that his move into lobbying was a logical step to “continue [his] work as an advocate for NASA to protect the good work [he had] already done.”

One recent case, in which some of Washington’s biggest names have joined a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort in defense of a Kuwait-based government contractor, has highlighted the moral quandaries inherent in the practice and helps explain why the situation has galvanized both Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez.

KGL case highlights questionable ethics

Indeed, the saga of indicted logistics executive, Marsha Lazareva, serves as a textbook example of the current state of play. Lazareva, a longtime figure at a Kuwaiti logistics firm, KGL, and most recently the managing director of private equity firm KGL Investment (KGLI) was arrested in 2017 alongside fellow KGLI executive, Saeed Dashti, on suspicion of embezzling millions from the Kuwaiti Port Authority. KGL, a major contractor for the U.S. government, currently at risk of losing a $1.4 billion contract from the Pentagon, has insisted to news outlets like the Washington Post that the companies are unconnected, but the two firms share a small army of lobbyists and lawyers.

KGL has spent millions, $2.5 million in the first quarter of 2019 alone, on a massive lobbying effort in the United States. A slew of DC insiders, from former FBI director Louis Freeh to Neil Bush (brother of George W. Bush and son of George H.W.) and former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), have signed lucrative contracts to take up her defense, calling into question the integrity of Kuwait’s legal system and threatening senior Kuwaiti officials with sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. Neil Bush even instrumentalized his father’s Gulf War legacy to Lazareva’s benefit, asserting that her legal troubles are “not in keeping with the Kuwait my father helped to liberate.”

Lobbying crusade

These interventions are particularly jarring given the laundry list of accusations against KGL, where both Lazareva and Dashti occupied senior positions. These include allegations that it has leaked sensitive information and repeatedly violated U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.

As recently as 2017, one of KGL’s top executives admitted that they had created a “ghost structure” to bypass the sanctions, and Senator Marco Rubio has called for the government to carry out a full investigation into KGL’s potential violations of the Iran Sanctions Act. Despite the controversies swirling around the Kuwaiti firm, KGL was nonetheless set to take over a contract worth $138 million a year to supply American troops in the Middle East with food and water – that is, until the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled on September 20th that the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) had to revisit the reward.

As the Washington Post reported, this court decision “permanently restraining and enjoining” the Department of Defense from working with KGL explains the high stakes facing the company and its legal proceedings in Kuwait. KGLI’s intense lobbying efforts, however, have pitted current members of Congress trying to hold the company accountable against their former colleagues who have moved to K Street.

An unchecked trend

It’s understandable why ex-policymakers shift careers, and why lobby shops welcome them. Both Congress members and their staffers endure long hours with high levels of stress and comparatively low wages. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for an erstwhile lawmaker to triple their salary by giving up elected politics for lobbying. Meanwhile, the firms themselves have a much greater chance of achieving desirable results with someone who knows which strings to pull. A 2009 study found that companies with ex-lawmakers on the payroll succeeded in their objectives 63 percent of the time.

At the moment, there’s little to stop the revolving door from spinning. Senate and House members face a “cooling off period” of two years and one year, respectively, during which they’re not allowed to officially lobby their former colleagues. In practice, however, these restrictions do little to dissuade ex-members of Congress, who have a number of loopholes to choose from to evade the cooling-off period.

Additional legislation urgently needed

The U.S. government’s inability to stop former lawmakers from monetizing their influence and connections is evidently a problem, but what’s less clear is what solution could actually get Congressional approval. Previous attempts to extend the cooling-off period were stymied by unsympathetic members of Congress, and even advocates of a lifetime lobbying ban have raised concerns that such a prohibition could be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.

Ocasio-Cortez has also suggested that the taboo subject of Congressional pay rises might need to be addressed. The Democratic Congresswoman’s logic is that lessening the financial burden on lawmakers to maintain two residences—one in their constituency and one in Washington—would reduce the temptation to trade for a fatter paycheck. Other commentators have suggested to cash in on policymaking experience rests on deeper roots, and that solving the problem would require a radical restructuring of the way government operates. In any case, the fact that a pairing like Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz can find common ground only underlines how serious the issue is.