In a move that appears to flout the U.S. Senate’s Ethics Manual, a former Senate staff member has repeatedly passed through Capitol Hill’s so-called “revolving door,” moving between public jobs intended to help oversee and regulate U.S. nuclear firms and lobbying posts in which he pushes the industry’s interests.
As Congress eyes legislation aimed at reining in lobbying excesses in the wake of the Jack Abramoff and Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham scandals, critics say the case of Alex Flint is a prime example of what's wrong with current lobbying rules and unlikely to be truly fixed by current reform efforts.
Most recently, Flint left his job as majority staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he was a key player in legislation that provided billions in subsidies to the nuclear industry, to become the chief lobbyist for the industry’s largest trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Flint was hired for the Senate post in 2003 after spending several years as a lobbyist representing a number of large firms with deep interests in the nuclear power field, as well as the NEI. Flint’s boss on the committee was Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., an unabashed booster of the nuclear power industry who has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from employees of the companies that Flint represents.
As a lobbyist, Flint was himself a frequent donor to Domenici’s campaigns before being rehired by the senator. And many of Flint’s qualifications to lobby for the nuclear industry in the first place were acquired through earlier jobs working for Domenici as a staff assistant, legislative aide and clerk of an energy subcommittee chaired by the senator.
Nobody alleges that Flint did anything illegal. Neither the law nor Senate rules prohibited Flint from leaving the Energy Committee post after three years in which he helped develop policy and shepherd legislation on nuclear issues and going directly to work as NEI’s senior vice president for governmental affairs.
'Stepping stone to riches'
And one Washington watchdog says Flint’s career path is hardly surprising in today’s environment, where congressional staff jobs are viewed by many as a “stepping stone to riches.”
Critics like Gary Kalman of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which opposes expansion of nuclear power generation, say Flint's case isespecially troubling in light of the fact that the Senate panel had recently finished work on legislation that included billions of dollars in research, construction and operating subsidies, and billions more in tax breaks for the well-heeled nuclear energy industry. In its press release heralding Flint’s arrival, the NEI trumpeted the fact that “Flint was a key adviser to Sen. Domenici during Senate consideration and passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.”
(A major player in the U.S. nuclear energy industry, and an NEI member, is General Electric Corp. GE owns NBC, a partner with Microsoft in the joint venture MSNBC.com).
Also of great concern to Kalman and others is this: Nothing in the current law prohibited Flint from remaining in his post for more than two months after announcing he would go to work for NEI.
In that time, Kalman pointed out, Flint “continued to serve a committee that is absolutely every day dealing with nuclear power.” Flint can say, as he did, that he recused himself from nuclear issues, but “it strains credibility,” Kalman said.
For instance, “Mr. Flint served as the spokesperson during the release of the committee’s white paper on global warming, which discusses how to regulate the energy industry," he said. "The policy questions raised in the white paper have implications for the nuclear power industry.”
Flint’s lingering in his committee post also appears to fly in the face of this passage, titled “Negotiating for Future Employment,” on pages 91 and 92 of the Senate Ethics Handbook:
“Because of the unique nature of their responsibilities to the Senate, including the influence which they exercise over the legislative process, and because all their actions are open to public scrutiny, Members and employees seeking future employment are under a substantial obligation to avoid not only an actual conflict of interest, but also the appearance of a conflict between their duties to the Senate and the interests of the prospective employers with whom they are negotiating.”
The ethics manual is considered the Senate’s guiding authority on all rules that govern “the conduct of Senate Members, officers, and employees.”
MSNBC’s repeated efforts to contact Flint directly in his new job at NEI were unsuccessful. Assistants referred inquiries to the institute’s media relations department where spokeswoman Melanie Lyons said, “With regard to Alex Flint, all I can tell you is that we’ve dotted all our i’s and we’re going to ensure that all the recusals and ethics requirements are met.”
Asked how Flint’s negotiation of his NEI job while he worked for the Senate and his continued tenure in that job after accepting the NEI post did not present at least the appearance of a conflict, Lyons said she would check with Flint and then e-mailed a response that did not address the question but read in part: “The premise that NEI should seek to fill a governmental affairs opening with a nuclear foe lacking in governmental affairs experience is ludicrous.”
She did not respond to a request for clarification.
'Doing everything by the book'
Earlier, she said, “PIRG (Kalman’s group) and the others have a right to say whatever they like, but it is what it is. We’re meeting all the ethical requirements and we’re doing everything by the book.”
Sens. Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who is the ranking member on the energy committee, did not reply to MSNBC’s inquiries about Flint.
Unlike employees of the executive branch, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to a congressional staffer negotiating future employment outside government, watchdog groups admit. According to the non-partisan consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which also opposes new nuclear plants, “The rules advise members and staff to recuse themselves from official actions of interest to a prospective employer while job negotiations are under way and for members to seek prior approval from the ethics committee about conducting such job negotiations. However, recusal is not mandatory and there is no system of waivers or public disclosure of these potential conflicts of interest.”
While many Americans have heard of the “revolving door” law that prohibits someone like Flint from “lobbying” former congressional colleagues for a year after they leave public employment, few people outside the nation's capital know precisely what this means.
According to Senate Rule 37, “For one year after leaving office … former committee employees may not attempt to influence any committee Members or committee staff.” The applicable U.S. Code section, 18-207, refers to “communication” with and “appearance” before such former colleagues.
In layman’s terms, this simply means that someone in Flint’s position “cannot go back to the Senate and personally lobby the colleagues he worked with,” Kalman said.
A lobbyist working under the one-year restriction may, however, “write the materials … direct the go-between … say, ‘Here’s the language you should ask them to insert … and, by the way, you can absolutely say that I was the one who directed you to call.’ That’swhat opens doors,” Kalman said.
Lyons, the NEI spokeswoman, agreed that the one-year restriction “in no way … affects Alex from providing behind-the-scenes assistance to others at NEI.” She added: “He’s our chief lobbyist” and “he will be” directing other lobbyists.
Lyons said Flint began his new job Feb. 24. She said she did not know Flint’s salary. His predecessor, John E. Kane, received $389,425 in pay and benefits in 2004, according to IRS records, far more than the maximum of about $155,000 a year that a Senate staff member can be paid.
At NEI, Flint will be representing nuclear interests under the auspices of an industry association that has more than 250 corporate members in 13 nations. Based in Washington, the institute has a staff of 132 and is governed by a board of 44 directors. Its expenses in 2004 were about $34 million, according to IRS forms.
Flint’s new job marks the second time he has gone from the halls of Congress to a lobbying post. The 39-year-old Florida native got his start working as a staff assistant for Domenici while still a student at the University of New Mexico. He later moved to Washington to become a legislative assistant for Domenici, who in 1996 named him majority staff clerk to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water. Four years later, Flint left to work for the lobbying firm of Johnston and Associates, whose clients then included NEI and many other nuclear industry interests.
In 2001, according to Senate records, Flint set up his own consulting firm and in 2002 garnered more than $400,000 in fees from Xcel Energy, Exelon Corp, Cogema Inc. and CH2M Hill, all big players in the nuclear power industry. He also registered himself to lobby for NEI in 2002, receiving less than $10,000, according to Senate records.
In 2003, Domenici again hired his young protégé, this time for the Energy and Natural Resources post, a role in which Flint commanded a staff of 30 and became “one of Washington’s preeminent nuclear policy experts,” according to the NEI.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was a key focus of the committee’s work in Flint’s tenure as staff director. Its provisions, which became law when signed by President Bush last August, were labeled “The Best Energy Bill Corporations Could Buy” by Public Citizen and delighted the nuclear industry. Among them:
- $3 billion in research subsidies.
- More than $3 billion in construction subsidies for new nuclear power plants.
- Nearly $6 billion in operating tax credits.
- More than $1 billion in subsidies to decommission old plants.
- A 20-year extension of liability caps for accidents at nuclear plants.
- Federal loan guarantees for the construction of new power plants.
Examples of federal lawmakers and their staff members working on legislation that benefits an industry and then taking a job soon after with that very industry have become very common since 1998 when lobbyist record-keeping rules were enacted, says Craig Holman of Public Citizen.
“Serving as a congressional staff member now is viewed more often as a stepping stone to riches than it is doing public service,” said Holman, citing statistics that he says indicate 42 percent of former House members and 50 percent of ex-senators wind up lobbying “for the same businesses that appeared before them while they were in public office.”
And Holman said many Capitol Hill staffers plot their careers specifically with an eye to making the best contacts for post-government lobbying jobs in which they routinely earn more than $300,000 a year.
“That’s what most of them do,” Holman said. “They leave public service and they become very wealthy. … This is wrong. The revolving door is a fountain for corruption. It is absolutely wrong.”
Holman and PIRG’s Kalman say perhaps the most egregious example of that is former Rep. Billy Tauzin's role in shepherding the Medicare prescription bill through Congress, then going to work for the companies that benefited from it.
Moves like Tauzin’s and Flint’s are “perfectly legal on Capitol Hill,” Holman said. But his group and others are pushing for reforms that would toughen disclosure requirements on members of Congress and staffers when they are seeking outside employment and much more severely limit what they could do immediately after leaving their government posts. Holman is hopeful of some success in the current session of Congress despite the most recent effort stalling in the Senate over a political maneuver on the Dubai Ports World issue.
Meanwhile, the 2005 energy bill is just one of a number of recent bright spots for the U.S. nuclear power industry after years trying to undo the PR nightmare of accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
In addition to strong allies in Congress like Domenici and Bingaman, the NEI and its members have an enthusiastic supporter in the White House. In his Feb. 2 State of the Union address, President Bush called for new investments in nuclear energy. And in a trip to India this month, he announced a landmark deal to share nuclear energy technology, a move that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said could be a windfall to the U.S. nuclear industry.
A dozen new plants by 2015?
Domestically, the NEI says U.S. firms plan to build more than a dozen new nuclear plants by 2015. On its Web site, the institute cites growing editorial support in U.S. newspapers for nuclear power, touts recent federal design approval for a new reactor design by Westinghouse and boasts of electrical production records set by U.S. nuclear plants in 2004 and 2005.
Things have been bright for quite some time for elected federal officials who receive campaign contributions from the nuclear industry. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the industry contributed $57.7 million to federal campaigns from 1989 to 2003, 62 percent to Republicans. Public Citizen noted that Bush and running mate Dick Cheney, also an avid supporter of nuclear energy, received $267,259 from nuclear power interests for their 2000 White House run alone.
And the Center for Responsive Politics lists four firms with strong nuclear interests among the top five donors to Domenici over the past five years, meaning employees of those firms or committees they control gave the senator a total of $65,915 in that time.