The Revolving Door: Moves from the Statehouse Floor to the Hallways of the Capitol Spark Questions
For some Illinois lawmakers, casting votes on the issues of the day is just the beginning of a potentially lucrative climb up the financial ladder.
After mastering how the Capitol operates, they can trade in their state paychecks for a bigger windfall as registered lobbyists.
Take former state Rep. Kevin McCarthy as an example.
The Orland Park Democrat was the main negotiator and sponsor of legislation last year that gave the state’s largest utility company — Commonwealth Edison — the ability to raise its rates with less regulatory oversight.
He retired in late December after 14 years in the House and less than a month later joined the lobbying ranks, using the name KMAC Consulting. His clients include ComEd and AT&T.
Then there’s state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, a Joliet Democrat who announced his departure from the Senate after seven years to take over as the chief lobbyist for the Illinois Hospital Association at a time when the organization will be fighting efforts to pare down Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Reform groups say such moves raise questions about whether elected officials are looking out for themselves or the general public. But within the often cozy confines of the Capitol, both moves were hailed as smart for each side.
On the day Wilhelmi announced he was quitting, he spent much of his time on the Senate floor being hugged and congratulated by his colleagues.
McCarthy and Wilhelmi are just the latest lawmakers to trade in their seat of power for a power suit.
A review of the more than 1,600 lobbyists in Illinois found nearly 40 former legislators registered to represent everything from utility companies to children’s issues.
There are former majority leaders, former minority leaders and former members from both downstate and Chicago. And in many instances, they are still addressed by their titles of “senator” and “representative,” even though some of them have been peddling influence for companies and trade groups far longer than they served the people.
Former state Rep. Kathy Ryg, a Democrat from Vernon Hills who served seven years in the House, joined Voices for Illinois Children in 2009. As its president, she is registered to lobby on behalf of the group, which aims to improve the health and safety of children.
She and other former legislators-turned-lobbyists say they bring a perspective to the Capitol that is valued by current members of the House and Senate.
“The complexity of the pressures on legislators is understood by a former legislator,” Ryg says. “The role of a lobbyist is critically important to putting good information in front of policymakers.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the abuses … have tainted the value that might be added,” Ryg says.
According to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, moving from one side to the other is far less restrictive in the Land of Lincoln than in many other states. Unlike as many as 35 other states, there is no revolving door provision in Illinois that stops or delays a lawmaker from debating legislation on the floor one day and buttonholing his or her chums as a retired legislator in a back hallway the next.
Most of the states with revolving door laws have a minimum one-year wait for lawmakers to begin working their former colleagues. Some states call for a six-month cooling off period, while others require a two-year wait.
States surrounding Illinois have all imposed firewalls on lawmakers’ becoming lobbyists.
The revolving door law in Iowa is two years, while Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin have one-year lobbying bans.
Some states say lawmakers must wait until the end of the legislative session.
In Michigan, for example, elected officials who resign are prohibited from registering under the Lobby Act for the remainder of the term of office from which they resigned.
In its code of ethics for lawmakers, Kentucky sums up the reason for its ethics laws as follows: “The proper operation of democratic government requires that a public official be independent and impartial; that government policy and decisions be made through the established processes of government; that a public official not use public office to obtain private benefits; that a public official avoid action which creates the appearance of using public office to obtain a benefit; and that the public have confidence in the integrity of its government and public officials.”
Brian Gladstein, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, bemoans the fact that there is nothing to stop lawmakers from negotiating for jobs with lobbying firms while still writing and voting on legislation affecting those firms.
“It shows that we have a problem in our lobbying system,” Gladstein says. “It brings up this notion that you could be in the legislature and getting promises for a big payday down the road.”
Gladstein says the organization launched negotiations a few years back with an eye on getting some kind of revolving door ban in place. Initially, the group was hoping to put a one-year cooling off period into law.
“It creates a potential for some more accountability,” Gladstein says.
Eventually, negotiators trimmed that period to six months. But in the end, lawmakers dropped the proposal.
Says Gladstein: “We have a system that’s ripe for corruption. When you have people jumping to the corporate sector in this way, it brings up doubts.”
For sure, the General Assembly has enacted stricter laws in recent years aimed at cleaning up Illinois’ reputation as the Wild West. In 2003, for example, lawmakers approved tougher “revolving door” restrictions to prevent such bureaucrats as agency heads who leave state government from immediately joining industries they had been regulating.
Lobbyists also have to disclose more information about whom they are lobbying, and they are required to undergo ethics training. Other laws cap food and drink costs and require lobbyists to report expenditures made on elected officials.
Duane Noland, president of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, served in the legislature for 13 years as a member of both the House and Senate.
Since leaving the Capitol in 2003, the Republican from Blue Mound has spent time on the lobbying rolls but currently is not registered. He says despite the negative perception of lobbyists by the public, the relationship between lawmakers and advocates can be beneficial.
“One of the benefits of being lobbied by someone who is a former member is that they understand your needs. They understand there is a risk,” Noland says. “They’ve walked in your shoes.”
On his second-to-last day as a member of the Senate, Wilhelmi sounded a similar note.
“I think what’s important to remember is that legislators don’t make decisions based on relationships. They make decisions based on information and understanding the issues,” Wilhelmi said. “I do have an understanding of the competing interests and the balancing that we do as legislators. Having that understanding will be beneficial.”
Just as McCarthy had experience at the negotiating table with his new employer, Wilhelmi had private sector experience in the health care field as a vice president at Murer Consultants, a health care consulting firm with a national clientele of hospitals, health systems and physician practices.
His new employer, the Illinois Hospital Association, trumpeted the hiring of Wilhelmi, who had been a legislator since 2005.
“A.J. Wilhelmi’s extensive experience in government and the private sector will be invaluable as he leads the Illinois Hospital Association’s efforts to ensure that our member hospitals and health systems continue to provide high-quality health care services to the people of Illinois,” said IHA president Maryjane Wurth. “He is known for building consensus and is well-respected on both sides of the aisle.” In his new post, Wilhelmi will join a crew of lobbyists with extensive resumes in state government.
Former state Rep. Chuck Hartke, a Democrat from Teutopolis, served a stint at director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. When he quit, he said he wanted to spend more time with his family, but he was soon back in the Capitol hiring himself out to companies and organizations with a knowledge of his connections.
Former Democratic state Rep. Julie Curry of Decatur moved from the legislature to Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration and then joined the lobbying ranks as someone who knows both the legislative and executive branches of government. Former Chicago state Rep. Sam Panayotovich was chief of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission but now can be seen cruising the halls of the Statehouse for his clients. Elected three times to the House as a Democrat, Panayotovich ran as a Republican for a fourth term but lost.
The insider status of some lawmakers-turned-lobbyists was highlighted on the Senate floor last year during a contentious debate on the controversial legislation giving ComEd the ability to raise its rates on customers.
State Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Lebanon Republican, called out former state Sen. Denny Jacobs and his son, current state Sen. Mike Jacobs, as examples of the conflicts of interest that exist under the Dome. The younger Jacobs was sponsoring the ComEd proposal while the elder Jacobs, who retired in 2005, was registered to lobby for the utility giant.
McCarter’s statement became even more notable when Mike Jacobs later took a swipe at McCarter on the Senate floor, saying the comments were out of line.
There isn’t any legislation pending that would stop the revolving door from spinning. In its 2009 report, the Illinois Reform Commission called for increased study of issues surrounding lobbying but didn’t make a solid recommendation regarding any cooling off period.
Critics of altering current laws also point to a 2010 decision in Ohio that upended that state’s year-long cooling off period for lawmakers.
In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott ruled that the lobbying ban impinged upon former legislator Thomas Brinkman Jr.’s free speech rights.
Dlott wrote that state officials failed to “establish that the danger of quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption is significantly lessened if the former legislator is permitted to lobby the General Assembly one year and one day after leaving the legislature.”
That position holds sway among those who’ve spent time in the legislative chambers and on the rail on the Capitol’s third floor, where many lobbyists ply their trade.
“Whether it’s six months or two years or no time in between, the fact of the matter is, no legislator makes a decision based on a personal relationship,” Wilhelmi says.
But Ryg and Gladstein say putting some kind of ban in place could help erase the public perception that lawmakers are more interested in serving themselves than the people.
“It’s critical that we work to restore the public confidence in the system,” Ryg says. “If every legislator who became a lobbyist behaved in an ethical way, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.”
Kurt Erickson is the Springfield bureau chief for Lee Enterprises newspapers in Illinois.
Illinois Issues, April 2012