• More than two-thirds of states ban lawmakers from moving directly to a private-sector job in which they lobby former legislative colleagues.
  • States that do not have such a ban include Washington, Idaho, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.
  • The issue of restricting former lawmakers from lobbying is a rare point of agreement between many right- and left-wing activists.

A revolving door in the Evergreen state

Washington state may be among the most liberal states in America, but that doesn’t stop lawmakers from either party from becoming lobbyists for corporate interests as soon as they leave office.

Earlier this year, for instance, State. Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, resigned his seat and began working as a high-level lobbyist for Amazon, which is headquartered just up the road from Olympia in Seattle.

Most states wouldn’t allow this. As a report from Crosscut earlier this year explained, more than two-thirds of states ban lawmakers from moving directly to a private-sector job in which they lobby former legislative colleagues. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least half of the 50 states do not allow lawmakers to take lobbyist jobs for one year after they leave office, and at least nine states ban the practice for two years.

The idea behind these so-called “cooling off” period is simple: reduce the potential for legislative conflicts of interest.  

“It’s really the same as any ethics law — it’s there to protect the public interest,” Kerrie Stillman, director of operations with Florida’s Commission on Ethics, told Crosscut, a nonprofit news organization based in the Pacific Northwest. Stillman explained that Florida’s two-year waiting period on legislators becoming lobbyists is designed to minimize situations where lawmakers “might factor their private interest over their public duty.”

In Washington, lawmakers have had plenty of opportunities to enact laws similar to those in Kansas and dozens of other states. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has supported legislation every year since 2015 that would mandate a one-year cooling-off period between the time lawmakers — as well as certain high-level state employees — exit state service and when they can begin working as lobbyists. Every year, however, lawmakers have not advanced Ferguson’s proposal.

Other states are on the opposite trajectory. Voters in Florida, for instance, voted last year to bump the waiting period between legislation and lobbying from two to six years. The extended waiting period will take effect starting in 2022. 

Other states in which lawmakers are allowed to become lobbyists as soon as they leave office include Idaho, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.

Others have relatively lax restrictions. Oklahoma, for instance, has no mandatory waiting period, however the state constitution stipulates that “no member of the Legislature shall, within two years after a term, be interested in any contract with the State, or any county or other subdivision, authorized by law passed during the term for which he shall have been elected.”

An opportunity for bipartisanship

Even in left-leaning Washington state, there may be an opening for a bipartisan agreement on the issue. One of the major champions of the bill to create a one-year cooling off period is State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. 

“As a general statement, I have felt for a long time that it increases public confidence by having a healthy cooling off period, as most states have and Congress has,” Carlyle said in support of the bill.

Across the aisle, State Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, agrees with Carlyle that trust in government and voter participation can be bolstered by closing the revolving door between state service and lobbying. He is a co-sponsor of the cooling-off period proposal in the Washington state House this year.

“The point of going to the Legislature should not be to come out with a sweet private gig at the end of it,” Irwin told Crosscut. “That’s not why I’m there.”

At the federal level, the issue has presented a rare point of agreement between lawmakers and advocates on the more extreme ends of their party. Both Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for example, ran populists campaigns against lobbyist-backed candidates, and both now back a lifetime ban blocking the revolving door between which lawmakers and lobbyists rotate.

“There is good reason for a socialist such as Ocasio-Cortez to dislike the revolving door; she thinks lawmakers have too much concern for private profit,” the Washington Examiner editorial board wrote in June. “There are even better reasons for a limited-government conservative such as Cruz to agree. With lobbying jobs awaiting them, Congress members have an incentive to increase government’s role in the economy. More subsidies and more regulations mean more demand for former members on corporate payrolls.”

The Examiner goes on to note the “disturbing fact” that the five wealthiest counties in the United States are within commuting distance of the Capitol, which it attributes to former government officials cashing in on their public service. 

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