Last Friday, Todd Mielke was a leading state legislator, staunch defender of deregulation and chief executioner of the state’s health care reform law.
On Monday, the Spokane Republican went to work as a lobbyist for Johnson & Johnson, a Fortune 500 drug and health care corporation.
It’s not against the law. Some people think it should be.
Members of Congress have to wait at least one year after leaving office before they can become lobbyists, working their former colleagues and staff.
State law is more lax.
It prohibits lawmakers and state employees from taking jobs for two years involving contracts they specifically authorized while in office and from accepting jobs that clearly were offered as a reward for anything they had done as a legislator.
Beyond that, no rules apply.
In his new job, Mielke, 31, will follow regulation issues in six states, including Washington, and advise sales staff on product development.
The former state House member and GOP caucus leader said he heard about the job through the grapevine last summer when a company reorganization created a position in the Northwest.
He contacted Johnson & Johnson on July 1 to apply, he said.
The company wanted someone who could track implementation and changes in Washington’s health care reform law, particularly managed-care provisions that dictate how much flexibility providers have to choose products bought by consumers. Mielke also will monitor health care regulations in state agencies and how they will affect Johnson & Johnson’s ability to do business.
The former lawmaker said any special assets he might have as an Olympia insider will fade because of turnover in the Legislature. And as for agency staff, “those are new contacts for me, and they could give a rip that I’m a former legislator.”
Still, it’s pretty clear Mielke was hired because of his legislative skills and contacts. In the private sector, he worked as an excavator.
A revolving door between lawmaker and lobbyist is not in the public interest, some say.
If anything, a one-year cooling-off period isn’t long enough, said Ed Davis, director of state issues for the political watchdog group Common Cause in Washington, D.C.
“The member is lobbying people who the day before worked for them, in the case of staff, or with them, in the case of their colleagues,” Davis said. “Clearly, the access to influence through those relationships is exactly what people are paying them for.”
That unfairly tips the scales in favor of those, such as large corporations, that can afford that kind of access, Davis said.
Others say the existing ethics rules are just fine.
“I’m very comfortable with things the way they are,” said Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane. “It basically comes down to the individual person and whether they are ethical.”
Sen. John Moyer, R-Spokane, agreed. “Time alone isn’t going to make the difference. Do we accomplish much by changing the time between jobs? I don’t think so. You have to have a moral compass, and you either have one or you don’t.”
Some say legislators are so underpaid and overworked that putting more restraints on them isn’t reasonable. Others say their salary looks pretty good for a part-time job.
Lawmakers earn $27,100 per year. Benefits push their total compensation to about $32,500.
“That’s better than a lot of people make full time,” said Sherry Bockwinkel, head of CLEAN, a state government watchdog group. “The goal of elected officials should not be to become high-priced industry lobbyists. That’s a connection that needs to be severed.”
In Mielke’s case, he not only worked with his colleagues in the House, but he also led them as GOP caucus chairman. He recruited most of the freshman class to run for office.
Lobbying is a business built on relationships, and lawmakers respond most to those they know and trust.
“If members didn’t like you, they (corporations) probably wouldn’t hire you as a lobbyist,” McCaslin said. “And if they did, probably no one would see you.”