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Capitol Hill’s revolving door, in one chart

Here’s how the fight over congressional pay relates to Washington lobbying.

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The US Capitol Building is reflected in a door to the US Library of Congress.
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Last week, a fight erupted in Capitol Hill over a bipartisan agreement to give members of Congress and their staff a raise for the first time in 10 years.

It’s a debate forcing members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — to grapple with the reality that wages on Capitol Hill are stagnant and can’t keep up with inflation or the private sector. Some, like progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), are worried that a congressional seat is becoming something only rich people can pursue. Others are concerned that a decade with no pay increase is spurring more members of Congress to retire or take cushier lobbying jobs nearby on K Street when they’ve been voted out of office.

That dynamic can be seen clearly in the latest class of former members of Congress who either retired or lost their seats in 2018, only to return to Capitol Hill as lobbyists, consultants, or business or trade group representatives.

Out of 44 members of Congress who either retired or lost their seats in the midterms and went to work in the private sector, 26 — or nearly two-thirds — went on to get jobs at lobbying firms, a recent report from Public Citizen found. The vast majority of them were Republicans (after the 2018 “blue wave,” that was partly just a result of who was out of a job), but one notable Democrat who went from the Hill to a lobbying firm was former House Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in 2018.

Here is Congress’s revolving door, in one chart, based off the Public Citizen data:

Javier Zarracina/Vox

This makes sense; lobbying and consulting firms want to hire people who know how the game is played in Washington. Departing lawmakers are highly sought after by lobbying firms, especially if they held a position of power during their Hill tenure. They know exactly how things work and whom to talk to in Congress.

“What we’re talking about here is hiring someone not just for their expertise but also their network and knowledge of how the process works and what levers to pull — their knowledge of what has occurred and what debates have happened,” said Dan Auble, senior researcher at OpenSecrets (which published its own report on members of Congress who recently joined law and lobbying firms).

That insider knowledge is exactly what makes these members more effective than other lobbyists. A 2009 study, “Lobbying and Policy Change,” conducted by five political scientists, found that a consistent predictor of a lobbying firm’s success was if it hired more people who had been government officials in the past. In fact, groups with so-called “revolving door lobbyists” prevailed in their lobbying efforts 63 percent of the time.

In 2016, New America fellow Lee Drutman wrote that half of retired senators and a third of retired House members end up right back in Washington as registered lobbyists — far more than the 5 percent who went that route back in the 1970s.

This turnover is leading a number of people to argue that we should actually be paying Congress more. While raising congressional pay likely won’t immediately stop this trend, a number of political researchers think it could help strengthen the institution. It could mean Congress keeps people on longer, or at least makes it so that overworked staff don’t have to rely so much on lobbyists to help them craft legislation.

The debate around raising Congress’s pay, briefly explained

A number of moderate Democrats, including first-term members up for reelection in competitive districts, opposed a proposed cost of living increase deal that had been worked out by House leadership in both parties. The bill was quickly pulled from a larger appropriations bill, but House leadership is still discussing the possibility of working out a deal on the issue.

Members opposed to the raise have a simple reason: They don’t want to be seen as giving themselves a raise, especially if they’re staring down a tough reelection.

“Nobody wants to vote to give themselves a raise. There’s nothing good about that,” Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) told Politico. Hill is a first-term Democrat who flipped a Republican district in 2018 and is facing a potentially difficult reelection fight.

Even though much of the objection has centered on raises for members of Congress, the deal also would have increased their staff’s salaries. And there’s a big argument to be made — tied to the rise of Washington lobbying — that their staff badly needs a pay boost.

Here’s how Drutman sums it up on the independent blog Polyarchy, featured on Vox:

Congress is weak because it doesn’t invest in its own internal staff resources. Salaries are too low, and demands on staff are too high to justify a low salary for long. Washington is an expensive city, especially for families. And lobbying and executive branch agency jobs pay better.

And as Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained recently, congressional pay simply hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation or incomes in the private sector — especially since the 1992 ratification of the 27th Amendment, which was meant to keep Congress from giving itself frequent raises.

Since then, congressional pay has gone down significantly. Members of Congress make $174,000 annually, and their staff make less. Capitol Hill senior staff members make a little over $100,000, and press aides and legislative staff closer to a $50,000 to $60,000 range. That lends itself to the simple problem that it is tough for members of Congress to attract good staffers to stay in public for a long time, especially in a city filled with lobbying shops that pay much more.

That has a direct impact on what policy gets made if staff and members rely more on lobbyists and consultants to give input, and it can strain staff resources on things like massive oversight investigations. Working for a member of Congress means long hours and not a lot of pay — that’s a difficult environment to keep any prospective employee in for years.

The pay deal that was meant to address that issue was a rare moment of agreement between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who all said they believed Congress should pass the pay increase so it does not become a place where only rich people can afford to come and serve their constituents.

“I do not want Congress at the end of the day to only be a place where millionaires serve,” McCarthy said at a press conference last week. “This should be a body of the people, and I think it’s something that should be looked at.”