If you spent several years working as a mechanic and then decided to become a car designer, wouldn’t it be a good idea to use your expertise as a person who used to fix the cars in helping your former employer build better ones?
Or, if you spent several years working as a magazine writer and then went to work for a company as a media specialist, wouldn’t it be smart to use your connections in the magazine industry to help get stories placed about your new employer?
Or how about this – if you spent several years as an admissions officer at a school, would a viable future job choice be helping college bound students through the application process?
In all of these circumstances, people have built a level of understanding on how a process works and then applied that understanding for their future employers. It’s called earning a living.
Why, then, is it so unforgivable for former members of Congress and their staff to earn a living post-Congress working as lobbyists? And yet that seems to be the gist of a new Sunlight Foundation project called “Where Are They Now.” The project is tracking down the post-Congress job information of former members and staff to see if they have filed any lobbying registrations.
Now, before we get all personal here, let me clarify that I am not a lobbyist. I have no clients that pay me to present their views to Congress. I actually train others how to effective citizen lobbyists. This may be even worse, you be the judge. In full disclosure, I will say that I have contributed to Congressional campaigns, and you can read all about that at www.opensecrets.org
That said, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that members of Congress and former staff shouldn’t become lobbyists because they have special access to and expertise in the Congressional system – access and expertise that no one else has.
Umm, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do in developing our careers? Learn about something, build contacts, get really good at it and then earn money? Obviously, I agree 100% that people should be prevented from peddling that influence in a dishonest way (through bribery, trickery or other nefarious schemes). But should they be shunned and/or ridiculed for honest efforts to influence Congress on policy issues they care about?
Critics might suggest that the Sunlight Foundation is simply shedding light on this phenomenon and, to be honest, I have no problem with this in theory. However, the context in which it has been presented, complete with the tongue-in-cheek references to “jailed” members of Congress makes me think that this is more than a simple effort to keep people informed.
If we simply want to keep people informed, why not set up a true “where are they now” process that does not focus exclusively on lobbying registrations? Sure, that would be useful information, but I’d also like to know if there are former members of Congress and/or their staff that are doing other great things. My point is that in shedding light on just this one aspect of “where are they now”, the Sunlight Foundation may be doing even more harm to the public’s perception of Congress than good.