Where does a Congress member or Senator go when they leave the Hill; be it a calculated exit or otherwise? It’s true they have opulent post-employment compensation plans but even with a sturdy safety net many aren’t necessarily ready to trade in their careers or ambitions for leisurely weekday afternoons on the golf course, senior’s cruises and early bird dinners. Like many Americans, this transition usually means they either have another gig lined up if it was a planned departure or they are scrambling to find one if it came unexpectedly.
For many former politicians their new endeavor usually means they end up with a very familiar work commute—right back to Capitol Hill. Equally comforting and advantageous for both the new employee and their employer it usually means a lot of time spent speaking with old, familiar faces—though now it’s from the opposite side of the desk. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the pay also tends to be much more lucrative. And though they’ll likely still be referred to by the honorary title of Senator or Congressman or Congresswoman, their new professional title would be lobbyist or consultant.
This transition from elected public servant to well paid influence peddler is commonly referred to as “Revolving Door Politics” and its ubiquity and acceptance in the contemporary mechanics of Washington is often cited as one of the major contributing factors to political/corporate cronyism and the bastardization of our representative government.
Current participants in revolving door politics would likely argue that there is nothing inherently unethical about their new careers; they’re merely earning a living using their experience and expertise to navigate within the confines of a complicated system. And it certainly isn’t illegal in any way, they might add. There is one gentleman who has been extremely successful in the post-Congressional lobby occupation that would likely be the first to offer up this particular defense of the practice.
Meet former Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin:
Congressman Tauzin, “the Cajun in the Capitol”, began his formal political career way back in 1972 when he won a seat in the Louisiana State House of Representatives. He served there until 1980 when a series of fortuitous events catapulted him to a seat in the US House of Representatives. Eventually, in 2001Tauzin landed the chairman position of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This powerful committee has an exceptionally broad jurisdiction, but one particular area of oversight it’s charged with is the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmaceutical industry also happened to be a big campaign contributor to Congressman Tauzin—contributing over $200,000 throughout his 20+ year congressional career though $91,500 of it came in 2002, just shortly after he landed the chairmanship.
While chairing this committee, Congressman Tauzin co-sponsored and steered a rather large bill through the House titled the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act. With Tauzin’s help, the bill eventually passed through the House (by a razor thin margin) and the Senate and was signed into law. The bill radically altered Medicare, turning much of the business of caring for America’s seniors and disabled people to private insurance companies. Part of the bill, known as Medicare Part D, mandated that the Federal government cover a significant portion of prescription drug costs for beneficiaries under Medicare. It simultaneously dictated that the Federal Government could not negotiate in any way for lower costs of prescription drugs for the program as it had been allowed to in other programs like the Veterans Health Administration. It also restricted the Medicare system from purchasing cheaper, imported drugs from other countries like Canada and Mexico.
So, plainly stated for anyone not fully understanding the implications, this bill provided the pharmaceutical industry with an absolutely massive expansion in its customer base—with the deepest pockets in the world picking up a large portion of the tab—while at the same time guaranteeing they got to dictate, without protest or the slightest hint of competition, what the prices would be for these new customers. Calling it a sweetheart of a deal would be a serious understatement. Whether they said so or not, the heads of the pharmaceutical industry must have been greatly appreciative of Tauzin’s effort to steer the bill through to completion.
Two months after the Medicare Modernization Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush, Tauzin resigned his chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee and announced that he would not seek reelection for his House seat. Tauzin had a new gig. Citing a successful battle with cancer and his new found appreciation for the pharmaceutical industry, it seems that Congressman Tauzin was called to do even greater work as the head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the largest lobbying entity for the pharmaceutical industry in Washington. The new position came with a modest salary increase of course. As a congressman, Tauzin had a base salary of $154,700 in 2003. His starting salary at PhRMA was $2,000,000. Phenomenal timing on his part since he probably needed a more reliable way to pay for the lavish 1.1 million dollar Texas ranch he had just purchased months prior.
Tauzin would go on to head PhRMA until 2010, ultimately amassing a total of $19,359,927 in pay— $11.6 Million of which he received in his last year with the organization. (There are varying explanations as to why Tauzin left, but it’s largely irrelevant here.) Following his departure from PhRMA, Tauzin once again decided against retirement. Perhaps closing out his winter years languidly on his Texas ranch, hunting deer and comparing ATM receipts with old colleagues seemed a bit unfair to all those poor souls who needed him and his expertise the most. So instead, in addition to heading his own lobbying firm, Tauzin lathered up in elbow grease and found more work with the lobbying firm Alston & Bird where he parlayed what could have been a new found respect for fossil fuels into crusading on the Hill for companies like ConocoPhillips.
Nobody on Capitol Hill or K Street so much as batted an eye during any of this. Why should they? Tauzin is just another name in a long list of lawmakers who have behaved similarly. I’ll take a second to note here that there is a somewhat analogous profession where this behavior would not be tolerated.
The Model Code of Judicial Conduct dictates that, “[a] judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities”. There is a very important reason that the court system wants to avoid even the appearance of impropriety: It reflects the serious and warranted concern that, “…some conduct which is in fact ethical may appear to the layman as unethical and thereby could erode public confidence in the judicial system or the legal profession”.
The conduct of Congressman Tauzin following his departure from his congressional seat doesn’t necessarily constitute an unquestionable impropriety—there is some chance that it was all completely above board—but it would be a difficult to argue that it doesn’t, at the very least, bear some appearance of impropriety. It’s incredible that these types of immediate and questionable employment and pay-grade transitions are not only common but generally accepted as business as usual in Washington. Congressman Tauzin’s brand of revolving door politics is a major contributing factor in the American People’s eroded confidence in the Congress. The legislative branch should have the same concern about maintaining public confidence in their institution as the court system does.