Dana Milbank: Revolving door to riches beckons public servants
Robert Gibbs’ relationship status with Facebook: It’s complicated.
It’s complicated because mere weeks ago Gibbs left his job as White House press secretary, saying his primary work over the next couple of years would be President Barack Obama’s re-election. But then Facebook came calling – and with that friend request comes the potential for Gibbs to make millions by getting in before the hot company’s expected IPO next year.
Now Gibbs has to choose: his president or his pocketbook? If he chooses the latter, he will be following many former colleagues in a rush to cash in after relatively brief tenures in the Obama administration. The West Wing has begun to resemble a corporate placement service.
Peter Orszag, Obama’s former budget director, enhanced his own budget by taking a top job with Citigroup. Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden’s former staff chief, now makes money taking care of Steve Case’s money. The Chamber of Commerce announced recently that former national security adviser James Jones is now advising its members. Obama’s former deputy chief of staff, Mona Sutphen, staffs UBS Wealth Management. Former White House counsel Greg Craig counsels clients of a big corporate law firm. Former social secretary Desiree Rogers socializes with associates of the publishing company she runs.
And those are just a few.
Cashing in after a stint in government is certainly not new, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing that so many Obama administration officials are rushing to turn their public service into personal profit. The Center for Responsive Politics already counts 314 Obama administration officials who have passed through the revolving door between the public and private sectors, compared with 511 from George W. Bush’s eight years and 348 from Bill Clinton’s.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, because political figures of all stripes seem to have shed their senses of shame as they convert their influence into wealth. Seven senators from the last Congress are already in lobbying-related businesses: Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Bob Bennett, R-Utah, Kit Bond, R-Mo., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla. Fifteen recent House members are in lobbying trades, too, including once-dignified committee chairmen such as Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich. A dozen other just-retired lawmakers went into the corporate world.
Not long ago, it was a rarity for a lawmaker to become a lobbyist. But for high officials, influence for hire has lost its stigma. Public service, once a civic virtue and an end in itself, has become a steppingstone to riches.
Sometimes they don’t even wait until they leave government to tend to their balance sheets. After embarrassing publicity, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., recently paid more than $300,000 in back taxes related to a private airplane she invested in.
Across the Capitol, first-term Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., could be in even bigger trouble; investigators are reportedly looking into various financial irregularities, including undisclosed loans he received from a company co-owned by his mother that he says he subsequently repaid.
Voters can choose to remove McCaskill and Rivera for their indiscretions, but once an official leaves government, the few ethics laws on the books do little to stop them from using their connections to make a killing. And lawmakers aren’t about to jeopardize their future earning power by putting meaningful obstructions in the revolving door’s path.
So it continues to spin, transporting senior officials from the Obama administration, particularly from the Treasury, State and Justice departments, into choice corporate jobs. In the White House itself, it’s a perpetual career day.
Top Obama advisers David Axelrod and Anita Dunn returned to consulting. The first lady’s communications director went to Siemens. The White House media affairs director joined the Glover Park Group. The White House deputy political director decamped for Hilltop Public Solutions. One aide to the chief of staff joined Bloomberg L.P., while another chief-of-staff aide teamed with the deputy press secretary in a consulting venture. Biden’s administrative director became a law firm partner. A staffer in the urban affairs office joined the lobbying firm Raben Group.
Then there’s Marne Levine, former chief of staff at the National Economic Council, who became vice president for global public policy – at Facebook. If she and Gibbs end up counting their proceeds after the public offering, will they pause for a moment to consider that it was the American taxpayer who got them their corporate riches?
Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.