Our View: Hope for change in ‘This Town’?

Posted: September 3, 2013

With Labor Day now behind us, the traditional end of summer marks a return to routine for most American families. In Washington, D.C., this week will mark the arrival of members of Congress after a multi-week summer recess where they were ostensibly seeking constituent feedback in their home districts or states.

The returning Congress faces myriad issues, ranging from ObamaCare to Syria to another looming fiscal crisis, and many Americans have complained about members taking extensive recesses while failing to carry out some of their basic duties (such as passing an actual budget for the government instead of the parade of “continuing resolutions” that provide short-term funding and set up the next fiscal “crisis”).

Without a doubt, Congress deserves much blame for its failure to act, and a plethora of opinion polls show that the American people hold the body in low esteem.

And while Congress warrants disapproval for its long vacations in the midst of little action, the ironic thing is that perhaps the most telling reason for the gridlock in D.C. is the fact that people come to the Nation’s Capital and never leave.

Allow us to explain. Among our summer reading this year was the entertaining tome “This Town,” by New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich. Mr. Leibovich’s book provides an insightful look into the culture that is Washington, and how it attracts and keeps those who come to “serve.”

In 2013, the base salary of members of Congress is $174,000 a year, plus federal benefits. For most Americans, that would be a healthy household income, but it is nothing by “D.C.” standards. And, as Mr. Leibovich points out, many members of Congress (and government staffers in general) often “monetize” their government service with private-sector riches built on the connections established during their time in government.

“This Town” is full of many examples of former members of Congress who left but profit extensively from the “business” of government through new jobs in the multibillion-dollar lobbying and consulting industry.

Among those singled out in the book are former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, longtime Sen. Chris Dodd, former Sen. Evan Bayh, and former House Majority leader Dick Gephardt, all of whom “left” the U.S. Congress to move on to different avenues of service.

In each case (and in likely hundreds of other similar cases), they didn’t go very far. In fact, in some instances these former public servants literally went across the street to start their new careers, which bring in multimillion-dollar annual incomes.

Congress has laws prohibiting former members from lobbying the bodies in which they served for two years after leaving. But, being a strategic consultant in a firm that may employ lobbyists does not seem to pose a problem (and yes, consultants can also make millions a year).

Additionally, what’s funny to read is how many of these former members who were so passionate about certain issues while in Congress seem to have no problem representing paid clients that epitomize the problems they railed against on the House or Senate floor some years earlier. Lobbying, indeed, is a more than $3 billion annual industry in Washington, and sometimes thinking on an issue “evolves.”

How big a quagmire has this become? In his book, Mr. Leibovich notes the following figures, first reported by The Atlantic magazine: In 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Recent figures reflect that 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do.

All of this may be good for the economy in Washington, D.C., but it does little for the American people and offers faint hope for any real progress on the vital issues facing the returning Congress later this week.