WASHINGTON — Connie Mack took a big gamble running for U.S. Senate last year and lost, surrendering a safe House seat.
But unlike many unemployed Floridians, Mack, 45, didn't need to worry. He landed at Liberty Partners Group, a Washington lobbying shop where his father, the former senator of the same name, is a partner.
A steady number of former Florida lawmakers are finding jobs in the lucrative influence business, adding to nearly 340 members of Congress who have breezed through the revolving door in the past 15 years.
"They are literally cashing in on their Rolodex," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog Public Citizen.
Since 1998, when the numbers became easier to track, 43 percent of former representatives and senators have gone into lobbying, Holman said, exposing the cozy relationships Washington runs on and the high cost of joining the club. "It distorts the legislative process in favor of those who can pay for that Rolodex."
Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, said his constituents are noticing. "They say, 'You guys are just cleaning up on being part of this process.' "
Posey has filed legislation that would impose a five-year ban on lobbying by ex-lawmakers and make them give up their federal pensions when they become lobbyists.
"Sometimes in Washington people forget that working in Congress, or in a federal agency, is first and foremost about serving your fellow Americans — that's where the focus needs to be," he said when the bill was introduced.
The measure, however, has gotten almost no attention while the lobbying ranks continue to swell with former lawmakers.
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More than 20 lawmakers who were in Congress in 2012 now work in the lobbying field, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The new class of lobbyists includes Mack's soon-to-be ex-wife, Mary Bono Mack of California, who lost a re-election bid to the House.
It counts former Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, who works for APCO Worldwide, a major lobbying operation. The firm said Stearns advises clients, which it would not name, on "policy matters concerning the U.S. federal government, trans-Atlantic trade and cyber security" and is not a registered lobbyist.
Stearns couldn't register anyway; former members are barred for a year from contacting former colleagues. Ex-senators must wait two years. But there is nothing stopping them from guiding clients while having others do the legwork on Capitol Hill.
Some former members never bother to register, taking advantage of lax regulations that critics say make it hard for the public to see who is influencing decisions.
Two of four Florida Democratic House members ousted in the 2010 GOP wave, Allen Boyd of Monticello and Ron Klein of Boca Raton, are now registered lobbyists. So is former Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, who gave up his seat to run for governor in 2006. Democrat Karen Thurman of Dunnellon, who was defeated in 2000, works Capitol Hill on behalf of health care concerns and State Farm Insurance. Until recently, former Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Miami, was working for numerous clients in Washington.
Former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has returned to lobbying, a field he entered after leaving Congress in 2001, though he now concentrates on state issues for the big Washington law firm Dentons.
The ex-lawmakers join a number of other Florida lobbyists, current and retired, who parlayed congressional experience into a job. Former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, for example, joined a prominent Washington lobbying shop, DLA Piper, two weeks after resigning his seat in 2009. He now works for JPMorgan Chase and is not a registered lobbyist.
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Lobbying is an essential part of government, whether in Washington or Tallahassee (where the immediate past Senate president and House speaker are lobbyists). Ex-lawmakers acknowledge their experience makes it easier to open doors but say they still have to make the case based on merit.
"If they had a relationship with you and they know how you do business, what you stand for, they're likely to call you back. That's no secret," said Boyd, whose clients include the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the drugmaker Sanofi, Verizon and a group of small businesses involved in oil sands.
The latter has put Boyd in a position where he's advocating for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project many Democrats abhor on environmental grounds. "It's interesting and fun work because there are so many misconceptions and myths about the oil sands," Boyd said.
He said he was recruited by Twenty-First Century Group shortly after leaving office and lobbies both chambers of Congress and the executive branch. "I wanted to keep my hand in politics and policy," said Boyd, who served 14 years before being ousted by tea party Republican Steve Southerland of Panama City. A bonus: Boyd no longer has to spend every free moment raising money for the next election or working, as he put it, "the rubber chicken circuit."
Davis, who works for Holland & Knight and has a stable of clients ranging from Amscot Financial to Moffitt Cancer Center, said: "I really feel the key is what you've got to say. It's important that lawmakers make decisions on the merits. That's how I felt when I served and still feel that way. You have to respect the institution and the rules."
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Critics say the revolving door breeds bad government, if not big government.
"It's not like anybody is hiring them to cut the budget," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The revolving door is concerning because it's something where they have access in the way the average citizen, even the average lobbyist, doesn't have."
Holman, of Public Citizen, said the high rate of lawmakers-turned-lobbyists raises the question of whether elected officials are always acting in the best interest of constituents or heeding the wishes of a potential employer.
Members of Congress earn $174,000 a year while lobbying salaries can start at $300,000 and top $1 million.
It's not just ex-lawmakers but their staff spinning through the revolving door. Lobbying shops up and down Washington's famed K Street are packed with aides who tout their connections. A former top aide to Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Pinellas County Republican who oversees defense appropriations, is now a powerful lobbyist for defense contractors. Sen. Marco Rubio's chief of staff went through the door twice, going from Capitol Hill to lobbying then back on the federal payroll.
Jack Abramoff, the uber-lobbyist who served 43 months in prison on public corruption charges, said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that he'd merely have to dangle a job opportunity to get results.
"I started seeing them doing things for me and my clients that were way beyond the call of duty," he said. Staffers, he said, would let him know about a bill that would impact a client before it was public or while it was still an idea "so we could move fast to get rid of it, or support it."
Before Abramoff hired someone from Capitol Hill, he would ask them to fill out a chart of all the people they know, ranking different degrees of familiarity. "I wanted to know how connected they were."
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By and large lobbyists conduct themselves professionally, critics of the system say. "But the point is people are being subtly corrupted," Abramoff said. "What is it when someone gives a public servant something — whether a job or a political contribution — and then asks for something back?"
Abramoff was released from prison on parole in 2010 and his first job out was at a pizza parlor in Baltimore. He lives outside Washington and hosts a weekly satellite radio show and gives speeches about reforming politics. Even now he seems hardly qualified to step on a high horse.
His lobbying schemes have largely shaped the negative public perception of the profession. Abramoff said while in prison he decided he would use his experience to illuminate how the influence game works. He wrote a book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist, and says the only way to cure the revolving door is to ban it completely.
In the next breath, he acknowledges such a ban would clash with reality. Abramoff said a five-year ban, such as what Posey is proposing, would be effective. (Posey said he drew the idea after reading Abramoff's book.)
"All this goes toward trying to restore people's faith in their government," Abramoff said. "This legislator should be lauded. I would hope people step up and help him."
McCollum, who lobbied for banking concerns for years after leaving Congress, said two years is sufficient and that a focus on lobbyists overlooks a bigger problem: the flow of campaign contributions between special interests and lawmakers.
"That's what needs to be addressed and it doesn't get addressed by any restrictions on former members who lobby."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.