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It's Not Eric Cantor We Need To Worry About. It's His Staffers

The Hill is run by young staffers who are unelected, unaccountable, and want to cash in as lobbyists. Worried yet?
It's Not Eric Cantor We Need To Worry About. It's His Staffers
Image from: Trendmatcher

I appear weekly on Mark Thompson's "Make It Plain" radio show on Sirius XM, and I frequently get callers who tell me the way to fix our political system is to "throw them all out." But that doesn't work, and I tell them why: It only strengthens the importance of Hill staffers, who already have far too much influence and will make far too much money as lobbyists when they leave.

Think about this: They're unelected and unaccountable. But they're really the most influential people in Washington. And how did this happen? Well, three decades of budget cuts didn't help. Congressional and Senate offices are overworked and understaffed (87% of their 1979 levels), so many special interest groups helpfully "volunteered" to send a staffer or two to help. (Hint: They're not working for us.) So lobbyists frequently write legislation, because members can no longer afford to retain top staff.

Also over the past three decades, the salary disparity between lobbyists and staffers grew exponentially, while the cost of living rose to absurd heights in D.C. See the problem there? We've essentially outsourced our representation to aspiring lobbyists.

So that should add some context to what David Dayen is saying here:

But Cantor keeping one foot in D.C. actually speaks to what we should really look out for when it comes to his departure: where his staff relocates. Sen. Warren surely knows that Cantor’s colleagues are not “writing policy” or “making laws.” Neither did Cantor in his tenure. His underlings do it. The key policy aides actually author the laws, and interact with other staffers, and know far more about the inner workings at the Capitol than anyone really lets on. (Perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen this captured was not by a news outlet, but the Armando Iannucci movieIn The Loop, when Malcolm Tucker meets with the young kid at the White House who he assumes is an intern, but is actually directing policy.)

As it happens, ex-Cantor aides currently litter K Street lobby shops, working for the American Bankers Association, the Financial Services Forum, PhRMA, and major firms like the Glover Park Group, Capitol Counsel, Alcalde & Fay and Blank Rome Government Relations. These ex-staffers lobby on behalf of such corporations as Expedia, Comcast, Best Buy, Blackstone, Citigroup, General Motors, T-Mobile and Halliburton, to name a few.


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There’s a fair amount of debate about whether these lobbyists have lost power now that the Majority Leader has moved on, and whether the current crop of ex-Cantor staffers will be able to hook on. But I don’t buy it. K Street values former high-level Congressional aides, not just for their contacts with their old boss, but for their contacts with other offices, other staffers, ex-lobbyists who rotated back to Congress, and on and on. That’s especially true with a Majority Leader staff, who must interact with virtually every office in their caucus. Yes, the endless gridlock in Congress has crashed K Street budgets to some extent. But a policy aide for the ex-Majority Leader is going to be able to arrange a safe landing. The fact that a number of Cantor expats have already moved over to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s office makes the ones who head to K Street that much more valuable.

We know some of these staffers are looking for work. Cantor’s chief of staff Steven Stombres reportedly held a conference call the same night Cantor lost his primary, assuring everyone that they would get the best placement he could find them. Stombres himself got calls for jobs within two days of the loss. “Certainly the folks that are closest to the king will be the most valuable,” said one K Street headhunter.

“Everybody knows that Cantor guys are to be taken care of,” said another insider.Stombres already announced that he was leaving Capitol Hill. And Rory Cooper, Cantor’s former communications director, was picked up by Purple Strategies, a top D.C. public relations shop. Others in demand – like top health care aide Cheryl Jaeger, financial policy aide Aaron Cutler and deputy chief of staff Doug Heye – haven’t chosen their next employer yet.

This how-to guide for these lobbyists-to-be is particularly unseemly:

“A lot of these folks will have to be able to advocate on their own behalf, call in the chits they’ve been accumulating and cash them in,” said K Street recruiter Julian Ha of Heidrick & Struggles.

Ha added that Cantor aides, or anyone else in a similar boat this cycle ought to think about the lobbyists who have visited them through the years and create a target list of potential job opportunities

[...] “Set up those coffees,” Ha said. “The three rules of finding your next job: network, network, network. It takes a little bit of shoe leather and a lot of rejection to ultimately get to the source who will then lead you to the lead.”

These jobs range from $250,000 to $750,000 just to start.

This tends to sound like inside baseball, but if you want to understand the Washington influence factory, you have to start by knowing that staffers run the show, to what the layman would consider an uncomfortable degree. The revolving door is much easier to negotiate for these folks because it happens outside the public eye. But it matters when a staffer with deep experience starts advocating for Citigroup or Blackstone. It matters for the laws that get written and the priorities that get set.

Whether Eric Cantor makes a bunch of money because M&A clients get stars in their eyes when he calls them up means nothing to me. But where Steven Stombres lands? That’s actually important.

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