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Term limits would clog the revolving door from Congress to lobbying firms

Forrest Dunbar

In 1994, Alaskans voted overwhelmingly to impose term limits on our federal delegation. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down most of that law, along with similar state-level attempts to impose term limits on federal officials. Federal term limits must come from either federal statute or a federal constitutional amendment.

As I travel this state 20 years later, Alaskans from across the political spectrum often ask me if I support term limits for congressional representatives. I do.

Congress today is a one of the nation’s most dysfunctional institutions, which only 7 percent of Americans have faith in. Reforming the political system itself is as important a goal as any particular policy that system might generate.

Many reformers have pointed to our campaign finance system as the primary reason D.C. has become so dysfunctional. I agree, and joined with Sen. Mark Begich and Libertarian Mark Fish in signing the We the People Alaska Constitution pledge to move away from a campaign finance regime that gives nearly unlimited power to corporate interests. I also wrote an op-ed in these pages urging Alaskans to support “Patriot Dollars” and similar efforts to move campaign finance towards a One Person, One Vote ideal.

However, it is time that campaign finance reformers started looking at congressional term limits as a serious component of campaign finance reform. This would be a shift away from how term limits are often perceived in reform circles — as populist and emotionally satisfying, but ultimately counterproductive.

Central to the campaign finance system in Washington is the “revolving door” between lobbying firms on K Street and congressional offices. Former staffers can promise K Street firms unique connections on Capitol Hill, and former senators and representatives can go even further, offering personal relationships with real monetary value. Lobbying jobs have become so lucrative that some representatives see Congress as a “farm league for K Street.” These rich lobbyists and their backers, in turn, funnel huge sums of campaign cash to their former colleagues and employers.

Efforts at stopping this “revolving door” have centered around “cooling off” periods between Hill work and raking in lobbying money. But these laws are easily circumvented, both because the “cooling off” period is relatively short and because special interests can do things like refer to recently hired congresspersons as “policy advisers” or cycle money through think tanks.

Alaskans have a vivid example of the “revolving door” at work in our current congressman. In Don Young’s latest round of ethics violations, one of the main defenses from his lawyer was that Don’s friends, lobbyists, and campaign donors all get “mixed together.” On this, at least, he is telling the truth. Indeed, two of the lobbyists who provided Young with improper gifts (including a $434 pair of designer French rain boots, natch) were former staffers, Duncan Smith and C.J. Zane.

Hiring staffers and former members of Congress is a smart investment for K Street firms. The reelection rate for representatives in the U.S. House was 90 percent in 2012. Staffers can thus promise that their former boss will hold a position of power for the foreseeable future, and retiring congresspersons can point to all of their entrenched colleagues. Of course, the relationship goes the other way too; incumbents get reelected in part because of the aforementioned campaign cash from their lobbyist friends.

When a congressperson eventually does leave the Hill, it is the K Street equivalent of a major free agent hitting the market in professional sports: a major asset, with a max contract waiting.

Take for example Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, a sitting U.S. Senator who decided to retire. A year after stepping down, what was Senator Bayh doing? Working as a lobbyist for McguireWoods and Apollo Global Management, with a salary many times as large as what he made in the Senate.

Look at our campaign finance disaster through this lens, and term limits have a new appeal. Because there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop the revolving door between K Street and Congress, let’s jam it with a rush of bodies.

It’s basic economics: increase the supply of something — especially if the increase is large — hold the demand constant, and the value of that thing declines.

If we flood K-Street with out-of-office legislators, we will lower the monetary value of each, and thus the appeal of lobbying as a profession for those still in office. This would simultaneously create instability on committees and other positions of influence and make former staffers less valuable to K Street firms. At the very least, it would create doubt in the minds of congresspersons that they, and not their term-limited colleague, would be the one fetching $2 million a year in compensation upon retirement.

I favor a limit of six terms for representative (12 years) and three terms for senator (18 years), but the specifics could be worked out and negotiated. Furthermore — so this does not seem like a gimmick to remove my current opponent — those reps and senators already over the term limit should be given a grace period, say four years for a representative and 6 years for a senator, before being retired.

We already impose term limits on many positions at the state and local level; our cities and states have not collapsed. The current campaign finance system in Washington is untenable for American democracy and is driven in part by congressional entrenchment. I urge Alaskans to push for federal term limits.

Forrest Dunbar is a Democratic candidate for U.S. House of Representatives. He’s a lifelong Alaskan, a former commercial fisherman, wildland firefighter, and congressional staffer.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.