Seeking Work After Congress? Sharp Partisans Need Not Apply

Seeking Work After Congress? Sharp Partisans Need Not Apply


WASHINGTON — Dozens of soon-to-be former lawmakers will be looking for work come mid-November, but big K Street trade associations might not be the best place for them to send a résumé.

Once a comfortable landing spot for retiring and defeated members of Congress seeking to keep their hand in federal affairs and be paid well to do so, the trade groups that represent the nation’s businesses, industries and professions in the nation’s capital are, as they say, moving in a different direction.

“The model has changed,” said Michael Sommers, who served as chief of staff to John A. Boehner when he was House speaker. After a stint at one trade group, Mr. Sommers was in May named head of the American Petroleum Institute, one of the country’s largest and most powerful industry organizations.

He and others say that influential trade groups are no longer looking to build instant status and credibility by bringing on prominent former lawmakers. Instead, they are looking for skilled managers and communicators with Washington expertise who are capable of effectively running large, multimillion-dollar organizations and being held accountable to representing the interests of their members.

But there is another big reason departing members of Congress are not as attractive as they once were: the sharp partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill. Association leaders have to work with people of all political persuasions, and many of those coming off of Capitol Hill these days are inextricably linked to one political perspective or the other, diminishing their marketability afterward.

“Partisanship today is a factor,” said Dave McCurdy, the former centrist Democratic House member from Oklahoma who has overseen three trade groups and is retiring from the American Gas Association — and Washington itself — early next year. “I was selected because they knew I had respect on both sides of the aisle, that I could talk to both sides of the aisle and that I was a fact-based leader.”

Mr. Sommers agreed that today’s intense political environment was a factor for association search committees. “The member companies, I think, see Washington as a place that has become so partisan,” he said. “If you hire a partisan who has been on the ballot, that is not how you want your trade association to be portrayed. It is not that former members or former senators aren’t capable; they are. They could run these trade associations. But I think they are not being hired by what outside of Washington views as dysfunction.”

Some Washington groups continue to be supervised by former lawmakers such as James C. Greenwood, a former Republican House member from Pennsylvania who leads the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, and Calvin M. Dooley, a former Democratic House member from California who is president of the American Chemistry Council after running other trade organizations. But they are a diminishing presence.

In the past five months, more than half a dozen top association jobs have gone to former high-level nonelected officials from Capitol Hill or the executive branch or to seasoned executives from other associations. And in at least two cases, the new heads replaced former elected officials who left — Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor from Minnesota, at the Financial Services Roundtable, and Dirk Kempthorne, the former Republican governor and senator from Idaho, at the American Council of Life Insurers. This week, the Distilled Spirits Council hired Chris R. Swonger, a longtime government affairs specialist, as its new leader.

Mr. McCurdy said that there was “no shortage” of former members of Congress or high-level administration types interested in his soon-to-be vacant post, but that they were probably at a disadvantage.

And it is not just partisanship. Many politicians are not seen as having the skill set necessary for running large organizations. Senate and House offices are essentially small businesses, run very top-down, with a single goal — the re-election of the chief executive. Not to mention that politicians are often coddled with staff aides enthusiastically tending to their needs and frequently very reluctant to challenge them — or get an earful when they do. Association executives have to contend regularly with executives who are successful in their own right, with proven track records in their field.

“Even though politicians say they have a lot of bosses, they really don’t,” Mr. McCurdy said. “You have to understand it is a different role. You have to understand how to effectively work with boards, manage boards, lead boards, but also learn from and listen to boards.”

And while politicians get judged every two or six years at the ballot box, those running the associations say they are constantly evaluated.

“With how much politics has changed in the last 10 years and the continuing focus on the bottom line, every company in America is looking at their trade association and trying to figure out what value they are getting out of it,” said Mr. Sommers, who is overseeing an organization with a $230 million budget and 350 employees worldwide.

No doubt some Washington-based advocacy groups will always welcome a big-name former lawmaker with extensive contacts who is considered capable of bringing in members and drawing the attention of the news media. And to organizations with a strong ideological bent of their own, partisanship won’t be a problem. But given the turnover in Congress and potential losses by incumbents of both parties next month, there could soon be a glut on the market.

A few departing members such as Speaker Paul D. Ryan will be able to rake in substantial speaking fees — at least for a while. Others could catch on with lobbying and law firms to serve as strategic advisers while waiting for lobbying bans to expire. But the job market isn’t what it once was for ex-office holders, particularly those who weren’t committee chairmen or in leadership.

“For the junior member who never held a gavel, there is not a demand,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican House member from Virginia.

And those who do stick around Washington and secure a job are expected to work, not solely entertain clients, share their Rolodexes and treat their private-sector jobs as a deserved retirement.

As for Mr. McCurdy, he is heading out of town after being first elected in 1980 at age 30.

“It is time,” he said. “It has gotten so sharply partisan here that I think it is time for me to take a break.”



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