By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 5/24/2007 5:40:57 PM ET 2007-05-24T21:40:57

K Street needs the Democrats: they now control Congress and decide what bills get sent to the president’s desk. But do congressional Democrats need K Street?

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K Street is Washington shorthand for the universe of lobbyists who represent corporations, industries, labor unions, and ideological causes. Lobbyists also raise money for each party’s candidates.

Democrats were elected last November partly on the wave of voter disaffection with GOP House members illegally accepting payments for official actions and by the sense that K Street had gained too much influence over Congress.

The House OK’d a bill Thursday which would impose a new disclosure requirement on lobbyists who collect and “bundle” campaign contributions totaling more than $5,000 a quarter.

It also passed another bill requiring increased disclosure of lobbyists' contributions to House members' charities and disclosure of members or staff negotiating for future employment.

But Democratic leaders deleted a key provision that reform groups such as Common Cause wanted: making members and staffers wait two years after they exit Congress before beginning a lobbying career. Under current law, the waiting period is one year.

K Street has received an influx of Democrats since the party triumphed in last November’s elections. Former Democratic staffers have left Capitol Hill to work for firms such as Verizon or to join lobbying outfits.

K Street's role in keeping Democratic majority
The House vote on Thursday sharpens the focus on a question that has implications for the 2008 elections and beyond: Can Democrats keep a lasting congressional majority if they don’t have Democratic lobbyists on K Street who know the legislative process and can support the Democratic majority?

Is the “revolving door” of former Democratic congressional staffers heading to K Street an inevitable fact of politics?

In an editorial Wednesday, the New York Times railed against congressional Democrats who defeated “tighter restrictions on the sleazy, revolving-door culture” of members and congressional staffers migrating to K Street.

“If House Democrats pass a bill that doesn't include provisions shutting or at least slowing down the revolving door, they are going on record in support of the same culture of corruption they claimed to be against in the 2006 elections,” said David Sirota, a Democratic activist and author of the book “Hostile Takeover: How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government — and How We Take It Back.”

Sirota added, “The only people who are against slowing down the revolving door are those who go into government specifically to use their taxpayer-funded experience in public service in order to personally cash in and shill for Big Money interests.”

Effect of a two-year hiatus
But a former Democratic congressional staffer who is now one of Washington’s most accomplished lobbyists told in an interview Wednesday that a two-year blackout period would have “reduced the ability of people to leave government and to do other jobs. And the much more pernicious effect is it would have reduced the likelihood of really good people to want to go back into government” after serving a stint on K Street.

This lobbyist spoke on condition that he not be identified by name.

“Nobody goes into government to make themselves more valuable as lobbyist; they go into government because they like public service and like working on Capitol Hill,” the Democratic lobbyist said.

“It is a disincentive if Congress says, ‘when you leave Capitol Hill, you’re not going to be able to make any money in anything involved in Washington,’” he explained.

A congressional staffer-turned-lobbyist might want to go back to work for a Democratic senator or House member at some point — but if he knew he couldn’t spend a few years making the lobbying income required to sustain a Washington lifestyle: house, school and college tuitions, etc. then he wouldn’t return to government service.

A two-year waiting period before lobbying “reduces your options and your financial viability, particularly if your kids are going to college,” the lobbyist said.

But the lobbyist said the Democrats’ new popularity on K Street does not resemble “the K Street project” run by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in which lobbying firms were urged, some say pressured, to hire Republican congressional staffers.

“The Republicans were a bunch of thugs about it — the way they went about it was totally crude,” he said.

The difference is that as a result of last November’s election, “K Street is desperately trying to get Democrats because they had ignored us for so long. And there’s not enough of a supply to meet the demand.”

One veteran House Democrat, nine-term member Collin Peterson of Minnesota said Thursday, “I don’t see any problem that needs to be fixed by going to a two-year ban. With the people who have gotten in trouble here, that has not been the problem.”

He was referring to ex-members such as Republican Duke Cunningham, who was convicted of conspiring to commit bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. Cunningham admitted to taking bribes in return for getting government contracts for defense contractors.

“Lobbying serves a useful function,” Peterson said. “In our system, we need lobbyists. A good lobbyist will tell you not only his side of the issue, but the other side. If you think they’re evil, then they’re a necessary evil. To really understand this place, you have to have been here.”

Critic sees voter backlash in 2008
Critics such as Sirota say Democrats can’t afford to become intimate with corporate interests on K Street.

“Selling one's soul to the highest bidder may be par for the course in Washington, but it's exactly the kind of behavior that the rest of America is so disgusted with,” Sirota said. “A Democratic Party that ignores that truism in order to keep their lobbyist pals happy is one that should prepare for a voter backlash come 2008.”

And that is the intriguing election-year question:  Will there be a voter backlash next year if Congress passes diluted lobby reform? How much do voters care about lobbying?

“People in my district are not sitting around saying the solution is to go from a one-year timeout to a two-year timeout,” Peterson said. He added that he supported disclosure of lobbyists’ bundling of campaign contributions for congressional candidates, but would really like to see public (taxpayer) financing of campaigns.

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