Cashing In On Connections: For Congressional Staff-Turned-Lobbyists, Who You Know Matters

By Joshua McCrain

The revolving door between Capitol Hill and lobbying firms is no secret in Washington. In a new working paper, I place a dollar figure on the value of walking through the revolving door for Hill staff. I find that the lobbying industry financially rewards lobbyists with congressional staff experience to the tune of hundreds of thousands of additional dollars --- depending on who they know.

Readers of LegBranch.com are unlikely to need convincing of the importance of congressional staff in the day-to-day functioning of Congress. Moreover, it should be no surprise that the lobbying industry desires lobbyists with substantial Capitol Hill experience.

My research, however, suggests that certain kinds of Hill experience are more desirable in the lobbying industry, and the most valuable asset for a revolving door lobbyist is their network of personal relationships with other congressional staff.

I measure personal connections by determining all the staff with whom the lobbyist ever shared an office during their tenure as a Hill staffer. I then count how many of these staff are still working on the Hill during the lobbyist’s first year lobbying.

Taking revenue figures reported in lobbying disclosure filings (only for firm lobbyists), I then analyze how much lobbying revenue these lobbyists are predicted to earn, conditional on the number of ties they maintain to other Hill staff and other traits from their time on Capitol Hill (e.g., position title and chamber experience).

The dollar figures are substantial.

An increase in the number of staff connections from 70 to 128 (a one standard deviation increase over the mean) predicts, on average, $155,000 in additional revenue in one year. This figure increases to $360,000 in revenue for lobbyists with certain backgrounds and experience.

Source: Joshua McCrain.

Source: Joshua McCrain.

These findings have important implications for bolstering congressional capacity and developing expertise in congressional staff.

In a previous LegBranch.com post, Profs. Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas document some worrying trends associated with congressional staff levels and the lobbying industry. In short, the number of congressional staff have declined over time while the work of the federal government has grown more complex. With fewer staff available to members of Congress, lobbyists are filling the void.

Elsewhere, I document an equally troubling trend: congressional staff pay (adjusted for inflation) has decreased over time.

Source: Joshua McCrain.

Source: Joshua McCrain.

Taking these patterns together, the implication is that fewer and fewer congressional staff are given more and more responsibilities---all while their pay decreases and cost of living in Washington, DC rises.

Any discussion on reforming congressional capacity must carefully consider the challenges faced by congressional staff. As their jobs get more stressful and they’re faced with little hope of substantial pay increases, the draw from private employers such as lobbying firms becomes difficult to ignore. And the evidence is clear: congressional staffers are financially rewarded based on their backgrounds as public employees. So, the worse the conditions get on the Hill for these staffers, the stronger the draw of the outside option becomes.

Joshua McCrain is a PhD student in political science at Emory University. You can find him on Twitter @joshmccrain.