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2007-11-29

Is Trent Lott Leaving Senate To Dodge New Ethics Law on Lobbying?

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Sarah Dufendach, vice president for legislative affairs at Common Cause.

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After Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott announced his resignation this week, it was widely speculated that the Mississippi Republican was quitting in order to avoid new ethics rules that require senators to wait two years, instead of one, before becoming paid Capitol Hill lobbyists. We speak with Sarah Dufendach of Common Cause. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: After Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott announced his resignation this week, it was widely speculated that the Mississippi Republican was quitting in order to avoid new Senate ethics standards that take effect next year. The new rules require senators to wait two years, instead of one, before becoming paid Capitol Hill lobbyists. At a press conference to announce his resignation, Lott was asked about the new law.

    REPORTER: What role did the new law that says you can’t lobby, as of January 1, 2008, for two years if you were to resign by then, have in your decision to resign now?

    SEN. TRENT LOTT (R–MS): It didn’t have a big role in that decision. You know, there are limits on that already. And as I’ve talked to my former colleagues, they say that a lot of what you do anyway is involved with consulting rather than direct lobbying. But a lot of what effected the timing here was — you remember, Trish and I had planned on retiring in 2006, and we made it clear. And I’ve struggled with that decision and made the announcement right here that I decided I had to run again, because the people I love the most in the world were struggling so much with Katrina. We wanted to — you know, we just had work to do.

    REPORTER: Senator, I understand there’s a rule in the Senate that if you’re negotiating with a future employer, that you must register with the Ethics Committee. Have you been down to that committee yet?

    SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I have not yet, but I’m not really involved in negotiations. I have tried to stay away from that. There are some opportunities out there that I want to be able to consider, but I have nothing that we’ve agreed to or lined up. And we want — I want to look at all of it, you know? There’s things that I’ve wanted to do for years, hadn’t been able to do, and we’ll see what they are. I might even want to come back and affiliate with a law firm. But I don’t know. I don’t have any commitments lined up.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the opportunities that Trent Lott is reportedly considering is a partnership with his former colleague John Breaux, the former Democratic senator from Louisiana. Lott’s son, Chester Lott, told reporters his father is considering teaming up with Breaux, who announced yesterday that he’s leaving the Washington lobbying firm Patton Boggs to form his own company.

AMY GOODMAN: Whether or not Lott takes the job, speculation is high his resignation, after thirty-five years in Congress, was timed to avoid the new ethics rules. The Christian Science Monitor reports it’s so rare for a US senator to resign during a term of office for reasons other than health, scandal or a quest for higher public office. It’s only happened twice since World War II.

Since 1998, about 43% of lawmakers who left office have become lobbyists, according to a 2005 report by Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. In the Senate, half of eligible departing members become lobbyists.

Sarah Dufendach is the vice president for legislative affairs at Common Cause. She joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome, Sarah. Talk about this new ethics law.

SARAH DUFENDACH: Well, in about one month, there is going to be an extension of the prohibition of contacting your fellow colleagues in the House and the Senate from one year to two years. And that will take effect January 1st in 2008. So, you know, when a senator so suddenly makes a decision to quit, and it becomes — and it’s so immediate, and you’ve got one month between, you know, the time that happens and the time these rules change, it does make you kind of scratch your head and wonder what is going on here. It could mean as much as, you know, a million dollars. I think people are saying that someone as high up as Senator Lott, if he became a lobbyist, could, you know, make a seven-figure income. So this could be a million-dollar decision for the senator.

AMY GOODMAN: He opposed the ethics law that he will now avoid by leaving by December 31st?

SARAH DUFENDACH: Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: At the same time, a couple days later, there was the indictment of a prominent attorney, Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, who is the brother-in-law of Senator Trent Lott, who was indicted apparently on charges of attempting to bribe a judge in Mississippi. Were you surprised by that announcement so soon after Trent Lott’s announcement?

SARAH DUFENDACH: Well, sometimes these things just — they come together. I don’t know that they necessarily would be linked. But, you know, you never know. When someone’s been in office for thirty-six years — he served in the House and the Senate — and then all of a sudden, truly all of a sudden, just “I’m out, and I’m out now,” he does open himself up to all kinds of speculation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about the significance of not only Senator Trent Lott leaving, but the Senate Minority Whip. What deal did he make with the Republicans? He lobbied very hard for this number two position in the Republican Party in the Senate.

SARAH DUFENDACH: I really don’t know how he’s been dealing with his colleagues. I mean, they cannot be pleased at this. There are six senators that are retiring. They’re going to have to defend more seats in the election. They can’t be very pleased with him. Especially, he just won reelection in 2006, hasn’t even filled, you know, one congress, leaving in the middle of a congress, then setting off an entire fight for his position, which is never pretty in the Senate. I can’t imagine they’re pleased with him.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Billy Tauzin, these other examples, the Louisiana congressman who was the key man, the point man on the Medicare bill, the Medicare prescription drug law —-

SARAH DUFENDACH: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —- then quitting, then leaving and becoming the head of PhRMA; the issue of not only doing that — that’s the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — but the negotiation that takes place. When does that take place, to start talking to the lobbying firm?

SARAH DUFENDACH: Right. I mean, what Representative Tauzin did was just appalling. He was negotiating with PhRMA, a trade association, for a multimillion-dollar contract, one of the biggest ever, while he was — while the PhRMA bill, the bill that was going to regulate pharmaceuticals and prescription drug prices, was in his committee that he chaired. So he’s doing the business of the company that he’s in line for a job for. I mean, it is just appalling. This is a public trust. Representatives are supposed to be working for the public interest. And clearly, he was working for his own interest and the pharmaceutical industry interest, and he was the point guy in the House to make it happen for the pharmaceuticals. It was appalling.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, with the new ethics law, what would it do in terms of restrictions on being able even to negotiate a new job once you leave office?

SARAH DUFENDACH: Right. Actually, I think the better reform or even a bigger reform than having expanded the, quote, “revolving door” or the cooling-off period between the time you leave and you can lobby is the one that now says that any member of Congress who is leaving and begins negotiating with anybody has to, within three days, disclose to either the House or the Senate that they are in negotiations with these people, and if it’s a conflict of interest with whatever is in their committee or what work they’re working on, they have to recuse themselves. But even beyond that, they’re actually prohibited from negotiating with a firm to be a lobbyist while they are in the House or the Senate. They just simply can’t do that, which would have stopped — well, theoretically would have stopped Representative Tauzin from doing what he did.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sarah Dufendach. I want to go back to the clip that we just played. It was from Senator Trent Lott’s news conference, when he announced his resignation. And I want to double-check, Sarah — this was a surprise to Republicans, as well, wasn’t it, to many of them, at least?

SARAH DUFENDACH: Yes, yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s listen carefully when he was asked about this issue of becoming a lobbyist and negotiating as he’s a senator.

SARAH DUFENDACH: Right.

    REPORTER: What role did the new law that says you can’t lobby, as of January 1, 2008, for two years if you were to resign by then, have in your decision to resign now?

    SEN. TRENT LOTT: It didn’t have a big role in that decision. You know, there are limits on that already. And as I’ve talked to my former colleagues, they say that a lot of what you do anyway is involved with consulting rather than direct lobbying. But a lot of what effected the timing here was — you remember, Trish and I had planned on retiring in 2006, and we made it clear. And I’ve struggled with that decision and made the announcement right here that I decided I had to run again, because the people I love the most in the world were struggling so much with Katrina. We wanted to — you know, we just had work to do.

    REPORTER: Senator, I understand there’s a rule in the Senate that if you’re negotiating with a future employer, that you must register with the Ethics Committee. Have you been down to that committee yet?

    SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I have not yet, but I’m not really involved in negotiations. I have tried to stay away from that. There are some opportunities out there that I want to be able to consider, but I have nothing that we’ve agreed to or lined up. And we want — I want to look at all of it, you know? There’s things that I’ve wanted to do for years, hadn’t been able to do, and we’ll see what they are. I might even want to come back and affiliate with a law firm. But I don’t know. I don’t have any commitments lined up.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the things he says, Senator Trent Lott says, Sarah Dufendach, is consulting, lobbying. What’s the difference?

SARAH DUFENDACH: Well, it’s — strictly lobbying would mean contact with his former members of the House and the Senate. But we all know that lobbying really is also a lot of strategic planning — how does it work, what is the process. It is a tricky line between laying out an entire lobby plan and procedure and actually picking up the phone or going over to the Senate and speaking with your colleagues. I mean, it is a fuzzy line, and I think he’s — you know, members have to be very careful about not stepping over that line.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Sarah Dufendach, vice president for legislative affairs at Common Cause.

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