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Paul Ryan has tapped a lobbyist to be his chief of staff. Here’s what that tells us.

US Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) leaves after a House Republican Conference meeting.
US Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) leaves after a House Republican Conference meeting.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It looks like Paul Ryan is bringing in a lobbyist to be his chief of staff upon becoming speaker. The dance of outrage practically writes itself: "Another example of the pay-to-play culture in Washington and the cozy relationship between K Street and Capitol Hill." How can he possibly serve the public interest now? More of that typical Washington corruption. Yada yada yada.

Morality plays asides, the real story here is not corruption or pay-to-play. The real story here is that the best candidate for the job (by Ryan's assessment) was working in the private sector instead of the public sector. And the reason for that is because the private sector is where you make the real money in Washington, and therefore it's where the most experienced and qualified people are most likely to be working.

Hoppe's hopping-arounds

David Hoppe, the lobbyist in question, is a classic Washington fixer type who goes easily between government and the private sector: from Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY) to working at the Heritage Foundation to working for Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) and then Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) as Senate majority leader to lobbyist then president of Quinn Gillespie to chief of staff for Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), then to set up his own lobbying shop, Hoppe Strategies, where he's been since 2013. Some affiliation with the Bipartisan Policy Center mixed in there, too. Good times.

Along the way, he picked up a typical range of corporate clients: AT&T, Sony, MetLife, the National Venture Capital Association, BlackRock, Cayman Finance, Amazon, Mars, the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, Ford Motor, Delta Airlines, and so on —  basically, the types of business interests that pay most of the lobbying firm bills everywhere.

Why the revolving door rubs some folks the wrong way

The good government critique of Hoppe's journey back into government is twofold: 1) that Hoppe will serve as an easy conduit for corporate interests into Republican leadership given his existing relationships, and 2) that Hoppe will use his new position of power to give his former corporate clients a leg up.

On the conduit to K Street problem, it's hard to imagine anybody serving as chief of staff for the House speaker who wouldn't basically be a conduit to K Street. That's a key part of the job. Any speaker, Republican or Democrat, needs support from the business lobbying community, not only for fundraising purposes but also for policy development and coalition-building purposes. The simple reality is that in order to get anything done in Washington these days, you need strong alliances with the business community. That's where the lobbying resources lie. Paul Ryan could have picked a career public servant to run his office but would have faced the same exact issue. Maybe his choice of Hoppe brings this into sharper relief, but the problem is far bigger than Ryan or Hoppe.

On the claim that Hoppe will use his new position to represent his former corporate clients, this seems to me a persistent misunderstanding about the revolving door: once corporate lobbyist, always a corporate loyalist.

My guess is that as a creature of Washington, Hoppe was closer to members of Congress and key staffers than he was to his corporate clients. Hoppe's value (he earned $648,406 in 2010, according to an ethics form he filed with the Senate) came from maintaining his reputation as well-connected and trusted, a reputation he would jeopardize by getting too close to corporate clients and putting unnecessary pressure on members of Congress.

Here's what he advertised on the Hoppe Strategies website:

Hoppe brings a wealth of experience to this job, having dealt with legislative development and strategy at the highest levels on Capitol Hill. He directed Whip offices in both the House and Senate, and led the Senate Majority Leader's office during the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations. Both positions oversaw and coordinated the flow of legislation through Congress, and both required working with political personalities on both sides of the aisle as well as the White House, to achieve passage for each bill. Hoppe recently reprised this role for Sen. Jon Kyl in the Senate Whip Office.

His value was in knowing which members of Congress might be responsive to which arguments, which members might introduce which bills, and, more generally, the day-to-day intelligence of what's moving where. The Hoppe Strategies website's "Services" tab is heavy on the "strategy" and "memos." If you hired Hoppe Strategies for weekly service, you would get "Scuttlebutt from the Hill — who's got lift and who's dragging."

The obvious good government move here would be to blame Hoppe for "cashing in" on his public service. But the reality is that DC is an expensive place to live, and even as a chief of staff, you are at most making around $160,000 a year. This is what a first-year law associate makes in DC. Moreover, when you're working for somebody who retires or loses an election, there's no obvious place to go in government. Winding up in lobbying is often the path of least resistance.

And who knows: A little lobbying experience may make Hoppe a tougher negotiator, since he knows the tricks on the other side better for having been privy to them. A little private sector experience can be good for somebody in the public sector.

The real issue: we don't invest in quality staff in Congress

Since we've collectively decided to do government on the cheap by keeping the number of congressional staffers limited and salaries comparatively low, it's no wonder folks in Washington spend some time as lobbyists. I don't know Hoppe well enough to assess his motives or values, but I wouldn't be so quick to impugn them. It's easy to fulminate about the revolving door, and the morality play of outrage is a well-honed script at this point. But morality is the wrong dimension on which to evaluate this.

If we don't like the idea of individuals jumping between the public and private sector, we need to take the idea of investing in government more seriously, so that somebody like Hoppe might make a career as a public servant and not get mixed up with corporate clients to send his kids to college and pay his mortgage. Instead, after decades of stagnating congressional staffing levels, it's no wonder that Ryan, like many other congressional leaders, turned to the private sector. That's where the majority of experienced policy and political talent works. And that's the real problem.