Armed With Influence

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The Armed Services Committee has a “revolving door” all of its own. The Committee, which oversees approximately $600 billion in spending and devises the regulations governing Department of Defense contracts, has seen large numbers of former staffers leave to work as lobbyists, some of whom exploit loopholes in legislation enacted to prevent such action.

Under House and Senate ethics rules, there is a one year ‘cooling off period’ during which it is illegal for a former staffer to lobby Members serving on the Committee (or who have done so in the preceding year). These restrictions, however, do not apply to senior staff who received either less than $130,500 or a rate above this threshold for less than 60 days. Senior staffers are also barred from knowingly representing or advising foreign governments for one year.

A violation of these rules could constitute a felony, although—like related legislation including the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which regulates lobbying on behalf of foreign governments—these cases are rarely prosecuted. A 2010 London School of Economics study found that “lobbyists with past working experience in the office of a U.S. Senator suffer a 24% drop in revenue—around $177,000—when their ex-employers leaves office.”

In 2007, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act was passed to “slow the revolving door that shuffles lawmakers and top staff between federal jobs and the private sector.” Though it was hailed by Members and supporters on both sides of the aisle, the bill not only failed to slow the revolving door but “created an entire class of professional influencers who operate in the shadows, out of the public eye and unaccountable. Of the 352 people who left Congress since the law took effect in January 2008, almost half have joined the influence industry: 84 as registered lobbyists, and 80 others as policy advisors or other influencer positions.”

When combined with other lobbying loopholes, the Armed Services Committee’s revolving door means that influential former national security experts could conceivably be promoting hostile foreign governments on Capitol Hill without anyone knowing. Of course, we would like to believe that no one who dedicated their lives to the service of this country would resort to using their knowledge and skills against its best interests. But given the incentives to do so—and mindful of the heightened national security threat posed by the particular subject matter of the Armed Services Committee—this is one loophole that we cannot afford to leave open.

Natalie Duffy is a Research Associate at Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative.