Washington's Lobbying Corps Populated By Former Lawmakers, Staffers

Nov 19, 2014

In Washington, D.C., there’s a waiting period before members of Congress and their staffers can work as lobbyists.

And unlike Oregon and 31 other states, Washington state does not require a waiting or “cooling off” period to slow the revolving door. You can leave state service on a Friday and start lobbying on a Monday.

The New York Times recently reported on former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna. Internal documents show that less than a year after he left office McKenna was lobbying the new AG.

That troubled Democratic State Representative Reuven Carlyle. He recently announced his intention to introduce legislation in January to require a “cooling off” period.

Why do proponents of these cooling off periods want them? Natalie O’Donnell Wood, a state ethics expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, explained.

“[They] believe that there needs to be a period of time to break the connection between working or voting on policy issues and then lobbying on the issues,” she said.

But O’Donnell Wood added that opponents see it another way. “The people that are asked to go lobby are asked to do so because they’re credible, they know the process, they know the topic and they’re good communicators.”

Insiders becoming outside influencers

There are 960 registered lobbyists and lobbying firms in Washington state. Dig into the names and among them you’ll find several former government insiders: lawmakers, chiefs of staff, agency directors and other key staffers.

Most declined to speak for this story. But not Bill Stauffacher.

Stauffacher left his job with Washington House Democrats in 1994 after Republicans swept to control.

“It was a bad time to be labeled as a Democrat trying to represent business in a Republican-dominated legislature,” he said.

But Stauffacher persevered. Today, he’s got a roster of mostly business clients and he owns a home across the street from the Capitol -- the ultimate status symbol of a successful lobbyist.

Being self-employed has also bought him something else that he says you can’t put a price on.

“Coaching baseball and being around my kids, being able to see my children grow up and having control of my calendar to be a good parent and enjoy my family life,” Stauffacher said.

Stauffacher said he doesn’t see a problem with government insiders becoming outside influencers -- as long as it’s disclosed. In Washington, lobbyists have to register with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission and report their clients, earnings, campaign contributions and how much they spend entertaining.

Lawmaker 'are worried about this exact issue’

Another former insider, Jay Manning, was chief of staff to Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire. Before that he was director of the Washington Department of Ecology. Now he’s back at his old law firm working mostly on climate and energy issues.

This work sometimes brings him into direct contact with his former agency and the legislature. Manning believes experience in and out of government is a good thing and he bristled at the term “revolving door.”

“It makes it sound like there’s something inappropriate about a state employee leaving their job,” he said.

Manning said, if anything, his former government colleagues now hold him at arm’s length.

“They are worried about this exact issue so when I show up if anything my experience has been the vigilance around this issue actually hurts my ability to be effective,” he said.

Awkward transitions

One state lawmaker who recently made the transition to outside advocate is Bill Hinkle. He was a longtime Republican member of the Washington House. In 2012, he got hired as the executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound. It’s a job that requires some lobbying, but Hinkle still had several months left in his term.

He recalled it was an awkward transition.

“It was like stepping out into an area that I knew I wanted to be very clear about what the rules were,” Hinkle said.

Ultimately, Hinkle resigned his seat as a lawmaker. But he doesn’t see the need for a required “cooling off” period.

“I think the relationships I had down there were really strong and if I had to sit out a year it wouldn’t have mattered, those relationships would not have dissipated,” he said.

Stauffacher is also wary of “cooling off” periods. He believes it’s just an invitation to move the revolving door underground.

“Then you create a whole segment of ex-government employees who advise but don’t actually lobby,” he said. “Now you have a gray area.”

Washington does currently have an “employment after public service law” that restricts some activities. But ethics complaints against people who’ve left state service are rare -- just 27 over the last two decades. And only seven of those resulted in an actual finding of a violation.