Could a No Influence-Peddling Pledge Block Washington’s Revolving Door?

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Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on the latest innovation in Washington’s shameful influence-peddling industry. Read the story for details, which involve former Democratic Congressman Earl Pomeroy, who supported the health care industry in Congress and then, after losing his seat last fall, went right into a job promoting the industry’s interests in the nation’s capital. The twist is that Pomeroy is dodging a one-year ban on members of Congress lobbing their former colleagues after leaving office by setting up shop with his former chief of staff, Bob Siggins, who faces no such prohibition. So Siggins works the Hill while Pomeroy works the Obama Administration (which he’s not barred from lobbying), and the firm does lucrative business with big health care companies.

But this is really just a new variation on a very old Washington theme. And it’s a reminder of how difficult it is to legislate away influence-peddling. There’s always some loophole or proxy that allows the usual suspects to sell their political connections and legislative know-how, earned through the democratic process, in the service of entities with narrow, and often, anti-democratic agendas. The Center for Responsive Politics counts a stunning 370 former members of Congress who have spun through Washington’s revolving door.

So here’s a modest proposal: Make them sign a pledge. After all, pledges seem to be defining our politics these days. The hundreds of signatories to Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge was a key reason Republicans refused to accept any revenue increases during this summer’s debt-limit negotiations. The Republican presidential candidates have been signing pledges left and right; even the ones who initially try to hold out wind up succumbing. They can include some pretty stupid and offensive language, and in short pledge-mania seems like a bad trend.

But if the trend must endure, it’d be great to see someone harness it and come up with a pledge that I think most Americans would agree on. Make every person who runs for Congress promise not to cash in as a lobbyist or influence-peddler after leaving Washington. Get them all on the record saying that they won’t take a job at a company that makes significant income from influencing the federal government. You could call it the Democracy Is Not For Sale pledge.

Something like this has been tried before, sort of: In 2010 Public Citizen urged the dozens retiring or deposed from Congress that fall to promise they wouldn’t cash in. But few did, and no wonder. By then it’s too late. You need to get them on the record when they’re still hunting for goodwill and the votes that result. (Some candidates have volunteered this kind of promise, as did former Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln’s 2010 primary opponent, Bill Halter, though it wasn’t enough for Halter to win.)

Obviously such a pledge would be legally and politically unenforceable–not least because anyone violating it will already be out of office and free of the voters’ wrath. And ex-congressmen who want to cash in but are mindful of their promise will probably find some new way to conceal or excuse their behavior. But it would have some moral force. A no-lobbying pledge could bring a little more shame to bear on the people who so cavalierly turn connections and knowledge earned through the people’s trust into corporate profit. Pledge-breakers could expect cutting news stories back home about their betrayal, and maybe some added loss of respect among their peers in Washington. Signs that ordinary voters were promoting such a pledge might also heighten the stigma to a practice now treated as business as usual in Washington. It just might give some alienated Americans a useful outlet for their frustration with the institutional corruption of the city.

Perhaps it’s too much to hope that Congress, where so many people seem to look very much forward to a lucrative future of influence peddling, will ever meaningfully restrict it by law. Maybe a dose of shame can deter some of the opportunists. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. After all, the worst offenders in the influence-peddling racket seem to lack a conscience in the first place.