What Do Members of Congress Do for a Living After They Retire?

Everett Numbers
January 20, 2016

Federal legislators make $174,000 a year, but when they retire, they’re likely to bring home much more. Home, however, often remains Washington, D.C., where politicians are increasingly lingering to provide political access to handsomely paying lobbyist firms, a new study shows.

Political scientists Amy McKay and Lindsey Herbel of Georgia State University joined with University of Exeter professor Jeffrey Lazarus to find out, as their study is titled, “Who walks through the revolving door?” Their analysis focused on the migration of members of Congress to the lobbying industry. While the researchers found virtually all members of Congress are capable of making that shift, select types are becoming more predictable.

In 1975, just five percent of retiring lawmakers chose to enter the lobbying profession. But “the numbers accelerate in the 1990s and 2000s, with more than a third of departing House members and more than 40 per cent of departing senators registering in those decades,” the study explains.

Already, the 2010s are on their way to outperform the previous decade. Of those who retired in 2012, nearly 40 percent of House members and almost 60 percent of senators registered as lobbyists. View the graph supplied in the study below:

The study, published in Interest Groups & Advocacy, showed that especially among retiring House members, a leadership role either with their political party or a legislative committee meant a better shot at getting picked up by a lobbying firm. However, plain membership on the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee, both of which deal with trade and taxes, was an attractive resume point, as well.

congressThe study, which used DW-NOMINATE (dynamic, weighted Nominal Three-Step Estimation), noted that moderate Republicans were more likely to walk through the revolving door than their very conservative counterparts.

Another observation from the study found overwhelming majorities of retiring legislators joined firms that represent multiple clients, rather than in-house operations for particular corporations. House members went for the former 78 percent of the time, while senators did so 87 percent of the time.

Transparency watchdog OpenSecrets.org estimates $3.2 billion is spent annually on registered lobbying, but that figure, as well as the ones that were used in the aforementioned study, don’t provide a full and complete picture; a great deal of activity on Capitol Hill that involves influencing legislators and legislation isn’t reported or registered.

Tim LaPira, a political scientist at James Madison University, told Vox the actual total amount spent was closer to $7 billion.

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