WASHINGTON - Rep. Billy Tauzin and Sen. John B. Breaux commiserated on the telephone recently, two Louisiana politicians considering what their lives would be like now that they won't be part of the new Congress convening today on Capitol Hill.
The question wasn't where they'd live or what hobby they'd take up after retiring from their powerful posts. It was which multimillion-dollar offers from law firms, lobbying shops or trade groups they would accept.
"It's been kind of exciting and at the same time kind of a little traumatic," Tauzin said in an interview on the day last month that he was announced as the new head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a trade group that represents the nation's largest drug companies, with a pay package reportedly worth $2 million a year.
"We've gotten offers that amazed us," the 24-year House veteran said.
Over the past few months, the retirements of a host of powerful and popular lawmakers have set K Street, the traditional center of this town's lobbying universe, abuzz with talk of who would land the most sought-after big names. Lobbyists, industry groups and power brokers fairly salivated at the prospect of putting the former lawmakers' names and pictures on their brochures and letterheads.
Once they leave government posts, these lawmakers, with their deep knowledge of policy issues and the inner workings of Congress, prominent titles and highly placed connections, are a huge draw for businesses and trade groups eager to advance their agendas in Washington.
These days, the familiar swing of the revolving door has taken on the feel of a professional sports draft in which the players are members of Congress and the top prospects, accustomed to a government salary of $158,100 a year, regularly draw seven-figure offers from companies.
Like athletes with agents, lawmakers hire attorneys to help them comb through a bevy of offers and decide which will be the best, and most profitable, fit.
"If you're the chairman of General Motors, or the head of - pick whatever company - you're likely to want to go hire John Breaux, because he knows a zillion people and he's a great guy," said Tom Scully, the former Medicaid and Medicare Services chief who now lobbies at the law firm of Alston & Bird, one of Breaux's many suitors.
"Anybody that's dealt with one of these guys over the years knows that they're good, smart guys who will be incredibly effective."
Breaux's home-state newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, reported Sunday that he was expected to take a three-tiered approach, working for both a lobbying firm and an investment bank, while also teaching at a Louisiana university.
A common path
The path these lawmakers take is well-worn. Every year, powerful lawmakers resign from Congress, deliver farewell speeches on the House or Senate floor, then make the brief journey from the Capitol to K Street to become well-paid representatives for business interests.
Federal records show that 103 former members of Congress are registered to lobby. The latest crop includes Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican and former Budget Committee chairman, who announced last month that he would open his own lobbying firm; Tauzin, the new PhRMA top lobbyist who helped draft a Medicare prescription drug bill as chairman of the Energy and Commerce panel; and Breaux, a Democrat and senior Finance Committee member who has been toting a three-ring binder full of offers from big-name companies.
'An inside track'
In recent years, the financial stakes have grown, as companies have seen firsthand the benefits of hiring well-connected lobbyists.
"The premium is on hiring lobbyists with connections and with an inside track to Capitol Hill, and that has made former members of Congress even more valuable than before," said Steven Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.
Lawmakers say they relish the opportunity to stay involved in the issues that have shaped their careers in government.
"I've been involved in legislation for 35 years - 32 as a member - it's something I've known all my life, and I think I'd be foolish not to continue doing it. And it's something I enjoy doing," Breaux said last month.
Those staying in Congress say that their retiring colleagues will continue to enjoy their friendship and trust - a valuable advantage in a city that puts a premium on both.
"They're very well respected on both sides of the aisle, and the respect is not going to disappear simply because they represent other interests," said Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat.
"They bring the capability to speak to their former colleagues as peers," said Juleanna Glover Weiss, a former spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney and now a lobbyist at Clark & Weinstock. "The rest of us speak to them from more the staffer perspective, and I think even the smartest staffer is less able to provide counsel and advice than a former member. They can give a landscaped view of where the land mines lie."
Critics raise questions
But critics call the trend unseemly and corrupting - an example of businesses using improper influence to buy favors in Congress.
Former members of Congress have important perks on Capitol Hill. They can walk onto the House or Senate floor and use the congressional gyms and dining rooms whenever they choose.
"They are well connected in Congress. They maintain privileges that no other lobbyist has, and that gives them a sort of connectivity to Congress that no one else can have. Suddenly, the head of PhRMA, for instance, is best friends with countless members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and has easy access and a lot of credibility," said Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist for the nonprofit consumer group Public Citizen.
Such criticism is not confined to what lawmakers do when they leave Capitol Hill. Holman and others say the revolving door also raises concerns about how members of Congress might act while in office to land lucrative employment when they jump to the private sector.
"One has to really wonder what some members of Congress would do as a legislator in order to get such a job when they retire," Holman said.
Tauzin has been criticized for accepting the PhRMA job after a career in Congress during which he received more than $218,000 in campaign contributions from the drug industry over the past 15 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and steered legislation favorable to drug makers - particularly a Medicare prescription bill enacted in 2003 - through the House.
"You've got to wonder whether Billy Tauzin was negotiating employment with PhRMA while drafting that bill, which ended up being such a windfall for that industry," Holman said.
Tauzin scoffs at the notion that the PhRMA deal was a reward for his actions as Energy and Commerce chairman.
"A reward? It may be a punishment, I'm not sure. This is a huge challenge. I was offered much easier jobs, and this is the most challenging of all the options I saw," Tauzin said. The 61-year-old Republican, who was found to have intestinal cancer last year but now says he is cancer-free, said his main reason for taking the PhRMA deal was his belief that he owes his life to the fruits of pharmaceutical innovation.
"What I decided to do with this extra time God's given me is really more like a mission for me than it is like a reward of any kind," he said.
A perverse incentive?
Some congressional aides say the revolving door has been swinging faster of late, in part because of rules congressional Republicans have established that limit committee chairmanships to six-year terms. Some believe the policy gives the most influential lawmakers a perverse incentive to cozy up to business interests that lobby their committees while they still hold the gavel, in hopes of landing a lucrative position once they surrender it. Tauzin and Nickles opted to leave Congress at the end of their terms as chairmen of powerful committees.
"You're going to be gone in a few years - you might as well call in all the favors you can, so you're well-situated when you get out," said a lobbyist and former aide to a Republican committee chairman, who asked not to be named because he did not want to jeopardize relationships with lawmakers and their staffs.
A retiring lawmaker's choice of job might depend on future career plans, insiders say. A member who hopes to serve in government again will take pains to avoid conflicts of interest or controversial clients.
Lawmakers often look to sign up with a big-name firm, but such a deal might involve letting the company take what one lobbyist called "the latte foam" - a cut of up to 40 percent of the money he or she brings in. Some, like Nickles and former Rep. Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican, opt to go out on their own, exposing themselves to more risk but potentially more reward.
A 1978 ethics rule prohibits ex-government employees, including lawmakers, from lobbying their former agencies for one year after they leave. And former lawmakers who have become lobbyists say they and their colleagues take pains to avoid using their positions improperly.
"There are privileges, but I think members are extremely mindful and careful not to cross that line," said Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronics Industry Association and a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma.
Despite allegations of undue influence by former elected officials, most say it takes more than an old chum knocking on the door to make a member of Congress budge from a strong position.
"Former members rarely are going to get a member to do something they don't want to do," said Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat who represented Arizona in the Senate for 18 years before joining a lobbying firm. "They'll see you and your client. They'll sincerely look at your proposal or your legislation. But they're not going to say yes if they're against it. It would take an awful lot of money, I think, to get somebody to move on something if they don't agree with it."