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A new bill would ban former members of Congress from lobbying for life

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

This week, Rep. Rod Blum (R-IA), a freshman member of the House of Representatives, introduced a bill to ban former members of Congress from lobbying their ex-colleagues — for life.

It's a bold idea, and something like it seems sorely needed. The Center for Responsive Politics found that of members of Congress who left after 2010, more than half of them ended up in lobbying or lobbying-related jobs. And an anonymous congressman recently told Vox that some members are on the lookout for "a sweet lobbying job" all along.

Blum's bill would crack down on all this. Currently, former members of Congress are temporarily banned from lobbying their former colleagues for one to two years, in what's known as a "cooling-off period." The No Golden Parachutes for Public Service Act would make this temporary ban a permanent one. Former House members and senators would no longer be able to spend their golden years roaming their old stomping grounds and monetizing their connections for the benefit of wealthy clients.

And Blum's not the only member of Congress on board. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced a similar bill back in 2010. Last year, when he reintroduced it he was joined Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has backed the idea — and as he campaigns for president this year, he'll likely bring it up again and again.

The bill certainly isn't perfect. For one, it wouldn't do anything to stop the trend of former members of Congress becoming unregistered "shadow lobbyists" — that is, by advising clients on political strategy without directly advocating for their interests to elected officials. "By working as policy advisors and in other 'nonlobbyist' positions, former lobbyists can keep their current jobs but escape the consequences of being a registered lobbyist," the Center for Responsive Politics' Dan Auble wrote. Still, it seems clear that typical members of Congress will see their value on the lobbying market reduced if they're unable to directly advocate to their former colleagues.

If enacted, the proposal could also face a challenge in the courts for potentially violating the First Amendment. As lobbyists will quickly tell you, bans on lobbying could be interpreted as violating free speech, since they muzzle citizens from petitioning their elected representatives. Last year, the Obama administration decided to change its policy preventing lobbyists from serving on government advisory boards because of a lawsuit making this argument.

Finally, of course, there's the challenge of getting it through Congress in the first place. With turnover in the body quite high of late, it's clearer than ever that a gig as a senator or representative won't necessarily last for life. Which means that many members want to keep their options open for what to do next, if they lose reelection or decide not to run again.

Still, it wasn't too long ago that the idea of banning earmarks seemed absurd and doomed to failure. But the idea caught fire on the right, with earmarks becoming a favorite target of the Tea Party, being viewed as a symbol of Washington corruption. Just weeks after the GOP won control of the House in 2010, the party voted to make earmarks a thing of the past. The Democratic-controlled Senate soon followed the House's lead.

Congressional reforms are possible — but sometimes they need a helping hand from a dramatic event, like the Jack Abramoff scandal or the rise of the Tea Party. So while Blum's idea may face long odds at the moment, if he and other reformers keep pressing, its moment may one day come.

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