New Congress Spurs Wave of Job Swaps

Whenever a new party takes control of Congress, there is a crop of Capitol Hill staffers who need to find a job. There's also a group of former staffers who return to work for the Congress. The job changes can raise ethical questions.

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The impending change to Democratic control means a big change for the people who do much of the work in Congress. They are the staff members who support senators and representatives. Experienced Republican staffers will be out of work. They'll be looking for jobs as lobbyists. Democrats are suddenly in demand on Capitol Hill and in the firms that lobby Congress.

NPR's Peter Overby explains.

PETER OVERBY: Washington this month is a seller's market for Democrats and a beggar's market for Republicans. To Steve Elmendorf, it feels like déjà vu in reverse. He worked in the House Democratic leadership in 1994, the year the Republicans swept in and made his team feel practically irrelevant.

Mr. STEVE ELMENDORF (Democratic Lobbyist): It was terrible. You know, there was an enormous number of people out of work.

OVERBY: Elmendorf left the Hill. He went downtown to be a lobbyist and strategist. Now he's fielding calls from lobby shops, corporations and law firms, all of them eager to hire Democratic Hill staffers with experience and connections.

Mr. ELMENDORF: There's not enough supply for the demand out there right now.

OVERBY: But as some top Democratic aides on Capitol Hill pack their Rolodexes and relocate to K Street, there's one big thing they have to keep in mind - the revolving door law says they have to wait one year before they can lobby their old colleagues. The law has some bite. In fact, it's one of the laws that's sending Ohio Congressman Bob Ney to prison in the Jack Abramoff scandal. But it's difficult to impose a waiting period on everything.

Ms. BETH SOLOMON (Christian and Timbers): Waiting periods almost never come up in our work.

OVERBY: Beth Solomon is with the executive search firm Christian and Timbers.

Ms. SOLOMON: Firms in the private sector want to attract very high-level people, and they're not going to wait around for a year. So they hire them. And, oh yes, there's a waiting period, but I think there's also an understanding and an expectation that activity is going to take place that is within the limits of the law.

OVERBY: That you can respect the cooling off period and still be...

Ms. SOLOMON: ...involved.

OVERBY: Being involved, for some Democrats, means leaving K Street and taking a staff job on Capitol Hill. This raises different questions. A Hill job might mean a pay raise, if you've been working for a public interest group. But for a private sector lobbyist with college bills and a big mortgage, the financial hit can be huge. Still, Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta says there is a lot of interest.

Mr. TONY PODESTA (Democratic Lobbyist): I've talked to chiefs of staff of a couple of prominent senators who have been stunned at the quality of the resumes they're receiving.

OVERBY: And when the revolving door spins this way, the ethics laws aren't so strict. Take the case of Jeff Shockey, an aide to Congressman Jerry Lewis of California. Lewis has been chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Shockey worked for Lewis for several years, then became a lobbyist, then went back to Lewis' office. With that last trip through the revolving door, Shockey got a $2 million buyout from his lobby firm, which continues to lobby Lewis. Still, the buyout was okay, according to the House Ethics Committee. At the non-profit Congressional Management Foundation, Director Rich Shapiro says Congress shouldn't exclude someone who wants to do public service and make a difference.

Mr. RICH SHAPIRO (Director, Congressional Management Foundation): At the same time, we don't want them to be in a position where they're saying, you know what, I can really feather my bed and make a lot of money by having this job for a couple years and then trading it to some firm that will pay me double what I'm making now.

OVERBY: But that's a distant concern for most of the 2,000 or so GOP staffers who are losing their jobs. Right now, many of them are in what the House calls the Departing Members Service Center. It's in the basement of a House office building. A police officer stops uninvited guests at the door. Inside is a banquet room, converted into a cube farm. Each departing member of Congress gets one small desk and two chairs.

Patty Sheetz has been the chief of staff for Minnesota Congressman Gil Gutknecht, who lost in an upset. Sheetz is worried about her own future, but she also has 14 staffers to take care of.

Ms. PATTY SHEETZ (Chief of Staff for Representative Gil Gutknecht): I see it as my first duty to try to help them find jobs.

OVERBY: And for most, that's going to be hard. But curiously, not all of the big opportunities from the Democratic takeover are going to Democrats. The law firm Dickstein Shapiro just hired two Republican lawyers. They've been running the investigations for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. With Democrats promising more aggressive oversight, Dickstein Shapiro Chair, Michael Nannes, says he's anticipating more corporate clients.

Mr. MICHAEL NANNES (Chair, Dickstein Shapiro LLP): If there's some allegations of overcharges by a company such as Halliburton, or something like that, will there be an investigation where some of their people are called just to explain how something happened, or individuals in those organizations like that. That's the kind of thing where there might be some requirements for counsel.

OVERBY: And who better to defend you in a congressional hearing than someone who used to run them?

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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