With the announcement by Sen. Trent Lott that he will resign from the Senate by the end of this year, Mississippi is soon to lose a skillful senator. But Washington, D.C., may gain a shrewd lobbyist.
Lott’s imminent exit from the Senate signifies the departure of a generation of older, pragmatic, deal-making Republicans.
Even before Lott’s announcement Monday, five Republican senators had announced they won’t stand for re-election in 2008, which has created a very advantageous playing field for the Democrats.
Lott’s decision may be partly driven by the daunting numbers Republicans face in 2008, when they have 23 seats up for election, compared to 12 Democratic seats. For the GOP, the prognosis doesn’t get much better in 2010, when Republicans must defend 19 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 15.
The older generation
Other Senate GOP veterans are also facing possible retirement decisions in 2010: Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Charles Grassley of Iowa, George Voinovich of Ohio, Christopher Bond of Missouri, and John McCain of Arizona.
All of them except Bond are over age 70; Bond is 68.
It appears that it will be hard for the Republicans to gain the Senate majority until 2012, at which point Lott would be 71 years old. He specifically mentioned his age in his retirement announcement in Pascagoula, Miss., on Monday.
“If Trent Lott saw happy times ahead for Republicans, he would stick around. He’s a smart guy, so his departure suggests that he sees pain around the corner,” said Prof. John Pitney, who teaches American Politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
By giving Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour a chance to install a Republican successor before the 2008 elections, and allowing that successor to raise campaign money, Lott is doing everything he can to ensure his seat remains a Republican seat.
And the Democrats' chances of winning the seat appear slim: Mississippi is one of the most Republican-voting states in the nation; no Democrat has been elected to the Senate from Mississippi since the legendary states' rights defender John Stennis won his last election in 1982.
"A statesman like Senator Lott knows instinctively when it is time to give the reins to a new generation and I would expect that he is resigning for the noblest of reasons," said Patrick Davis, former political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Davis praised Lott’s "calm demeanor in the center of the Washington political hurricanes."
A consummate pragmatist
Even in the dizzying days of the Senate trial of President Bill Clinton, Lott stayed focused on the pragmatic reality: the Republicans had no hope of getting the two-thirds of the Senate needed to convict Clinton.
He supported a proposal for an abbreviated debate on conviction, followed a test vote and then adjournment of the trial. After an outcry from conservative GOP House members, Lott dropped that idea, but the outcome was predictable: a short Senate trial ending in no conviction.
Unlike some of his Republican Senate colleagues who have announced their retirement in recent months, such as New Mexico’s Pete Domenici and Virginia’s John Warner, Lott appears to be in fine health and has years of lucrative work potentially before him.
“That’s what I do — I count votes for a living,” Lott mentioned in passing to reporters at his press conference Monday.
Lott’s vote-counting skills would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to Washington lobbying and advocacy firms.
Lobbying eligibility deadline
Due to the lobbying overhaul bill that President Bush signed into law last September, Lott had to act before the date of adjournment of the current session of Congress, or by Dec. 31, 2007, whichever date is earlier.
Otherwise he’d be forced to sit on the sidelines for a two-year “timeout” before beginning to lobby his former colleagues.
By acting before the law’s deadline, Lott would need to have only a one-year hiatus. The Mississippi Republican did mention in his press conference Monday that he does not “have anything definitely lined up at this time.”
The new lobbying rules which take effect at year end “would diminish his value to lobbyists, and thus his potential income. Trent Lott is not a rich man, so he probably figures that he should seize the opportunity to make some serious money. That’s especially true since he lost his house to Hurricane Katrina,” said Pitney.
By quitting before Dec. 31, Lott will be eligible to begin lobbying on Jan. 1, 2009.
Many provisions in the current tax law, including income tax rates, expire on Dec. 31, 2010. Lott has long served on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and knows the thinking of its members as well as any person on Capitol Hill.
Ken Kies, managing director of the Federal Policy Group, a tax lobbying and strategy firm, said for the rewrite of the tax law “the real critical time is probably the end of 2009. The estate tax goes to zero on Jan. 1, 2009 and on Jan. 1, 2010 goes back up to 55 percent. Most people can’t believe that Congress is not going to address the estate tax. There’s going to be enormous pressure to deal with this in 2009.”
And who better to be advising a firm in 2009 than Lott?
Having served in Congress since 1973, Lott is “is one of the most astute observers of how the place works,” Kies said.
A dysfunctional Senate?
Lott has been saying for weeks that the Senate he once ran as majority leader has now become dysfunctional under Democratic leadership.
Two weeks ago, Lott complained to reporters that “It's becoming more and more apparent to me that this is just a broken Congress. In instance after instance after instance, we're not producing results where they're absolutely essential.”
He cited the failure of the Democratic-led Congress to enact a temporary remedy for the Alternative Minimum Tax which will hit many middle-income taxpayers with a big tax increase.
But perhaps, in a perverse way, the more dysfunctional the Congress is, and the more that outcomes teeter on a handful of votes, the more a company needs a wise lobbyist who can tell which way the votes will fall.