The Dizzying Spin of the Revolving Door

On Tuesday, a former congressional staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Mark Zachares, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the public by accepting gifts and promises of a high-paying lobbying job on K Street in exchange for official favors for disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients.

Zachares’s conviction stems from one of the most powerful tools for buying influence on Capitol Hill: the revolving door, in which lucrative lobbying jobs in the private sector are offered to public officials, oftentimes to win legislative favors for clients.

Zachares joins a growing list of congressional and executive branch officials who have been convicted for revolving door corruption such as Tony Rudy and Neil Volz, former senior staffers to retired Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and imprisoned Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), respectively and an even larger list of former officials shrouded in scandal such as former Rep. Bill Tauzin (R.-Louis.) for immediately spinning through the revolving door after leaving public service.

Despite the fact that there is a one-year cooling-off period in which former officials are not supposed to make lobbying contacts with the former colleagues, the current revolving door restriction is an abysmal failure. Of members of Congress who left office between 1998 and 2004, 43 percent went on to become lobbyists 42 percent of ex-House members and 50 percent of ex-Senators. By July 2005, only six months after the end of the 108th Congress, 18 departed members from that Congress had announced accepting jobs with lobbying firms. Four actually registered as federal lobbyists within their first year of leaving Congress. After the last Administration, about a quarter of senior cabinet officials moved into private employment as lobbyists.

The heart and soul of the problem is that former officials are currently prohibited only from making lobbying contacts picking up the telephone and calling their former colleagues during the cooling off period. All other paid lobbying activity during this period– the planning, strategizing and supervising lobbying campaigns– is unrestricted immediately after leaving public office.

Never before have we seen the revolving door spin so wildly out of control. It permeates the culture on Capitol Hill, vastly increasing the opportunities for corruption, and sharply diminishing the publics confidence in the federal government.

Resonable reforms must be put into place. Otherwise the revolving door, which raises so much public suspicion about conflicts of interest, will remain in spin mode.