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Washington • In just days, former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett will emerge from what he considers political jail and have restored to him the full legal right to engage with friends remaining in office.
A new Congress willbesworn in Jan. 3 and Bennett's two-year cooling-off period will come to an end. That afternoon he'll be able to register as a federal lobbyist and he intendsto do so.
"Lobbying is a constitutionally sanctioned activity, right in the First Amendment next to the freedom of the press," said Bennett, a former three-term Republican, referring to the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. "I don't see any reason why I shouldn't exercise my constitutional rights."
When Bennett left office in early 2011 he said he had no plans to register as a lobbyist, instead preferring to act as a consultant. He set up Bennett Consulting Group, staffed by former aides, and he joined Arent Fox, a mega-law firm that also has a lobbying practice.
In this role, he has offered strategic advice to companies, universities and state governments, but could not interact with government officials.
He's chaffed under the restriction and finds it rather insulting that any cooling-off period is in place.
"As a practical matter, is the republic in danger if a former member calls one of his colleagues and says, 'Will you please take a meeting from one of my clients?' " Bennett said. "As opposed to having the client call and say 'I'm here because Senator Bennett recommended that you were the person I should talk to about this.'"
The former senator calls the two-year ban a "really bad idea" and part of the "let's-punish-politicians-for-being-politicians attitude."
He said pro-athletes can retire and immediately become commentators and coaches. He said U.S. attorneys can leave their jobs and join a firm defending people against prosecutors that used to work under him or her. He thinks politicians should be able to become lobbyistsimmediately upon leaving office.
"Even if there aren't strong enough ethics restrictions for other classes of people, that is no argument for releasing all ethics restrictions on members of Congress," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, who argues the cooling-off period is too lax, not too restrictive.
He says temporarily stopping former politicians from contacting members of Congress is not enough. He believes they should be prohibited from offering legislative strategy to clients as well.
"Right now it is little more than a halfway house when it comes to influence peddling," Holman said.
Congress instituted cooling-off periods as a way to minimize the special access politicians-turned-lobbyists have in Washington, although there hasn't been any slowdown in the number of former lawmakers who enter the revolving door and take a job with K Street firms. Bennett, after his defeat by Mike Lee, was one of 25 lawmakers who left office in 2011 and took jobs with lobbying shops, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
House members have a one-year cooling-off period, half that applied to senators.
Bennett says the public overestimates the influence former politicians have on policy. While he may be able to set up meetings with his one-time-colleagues, he says hecan't get special treatment.
"The whole notion that there is somehow inappropriate influence is a myth," Bennett said.
But Holman's problem with the revolving door is two-fold. It incentivizes sitting lawmakers to take actions that may lead to a highly-paid lobbying job and it disproportionately benefits corporations and the wealthy over public interest groups.
"They are essentially selling their Rolodex, a resource no one else has," said Holman. "Their connections to members of Congress go to the highest bidder."
Bennett Group, staffed by his former Senate and campaign aides, represents clients that include Southern Utah University, the Utah Department of Transportation, JP Morgan Chase and the Financial Services Forum. Bennett doesn't expect that his ability to directly lobby will bring new clients and he doesn't expect to be the point person on any of these accounts.
He does plan to be involved at his own firm and Arent Fox when needed. The flexibility is one of the things he has enjoyed most since leaving the Senate.
"There is a freedom that comes with heading your own team as opposed to being part of another team," he said. "And the pay is better."
Senators are paid $174,000 annually, while lobbyists can get salaries that extend into the millions. Once Bennett registers, he'll have to detail what each client is paying him for his services.
Lucre of lobbying
Arent Fox's lobbying practice brings in more than $2 million annually, money that is in addition to its consulting and legal business. Former Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, has a lobbying organization that netted more than $200,000 in 2011 for his work on behalf of energy and recycling companies.