People who’ve been paying attention might have noticed a high number of elected officials and agency leaders moving through a “revolving door.” This seemingly endless loop from candidate or lobbyist to advisor or executive and back again may appear harmless, but it can lead to corruption and policies that prioritize special interests over the public good.
The term “revolving door” in politics refers to the practice of public officials and employees transitioning to positions in the private sector, and vice versa. This phenomenon raises significant concerns about the influence of corporations on government policy, as well as the potential for conflicts of interest.
Read on as we delve into what revolving door politics means and how it serves corporations over the American people. We’ll also provide recent examples to illustrate the extent of the issue, discuss what’s being done to curb the practice, and explore how individuals and independent candidates can help.
The revolving door in politics is really a two-way street. On one pathway, individuals move from government positions to jobs in industries they once regulated or oversaw, often receiving substantial salary increases in the process. Strolling down the other side of the street, we find individuals from the private sector taking on government roles, bringing with them industry connections and biases.
This interplay creates a cozy relationship between government and business where the lines between public service and private gain become blurred.
When former government officials take up positions in the private sector, they bring with them insider knowledge, connections, and influence. This access can be invaluable to corporations, particularly in industries that are heavily regulated by government agencies.
Many companies hire former officials in an attempt to shape policy or gain preferential treatment. As a result, these companies get insight into regulatory actions or use their contacts and inside knowledge to skirt them completely.
This influence is not one-sided.
Corporations also exert their power by placing their own people in key government positions. When individuals from the private sector move into government roles, they also carry with them a pro-business bias. This, in turn, leads to activities like shaping policies and regulations in ways that favor their former employers or industry at large.
The revolving door creates a situation in which the interests of corporations are prioritized over the needs of the American people. However, some argue that having industry experts as lobbyists or agency officials is beneficial.
After all, who knows better about problems within an industry than someone with active knowledge about how it works?
However, history teaches us that policies intended to benefit the public interest are instead often influenced by private gain. This undermines the democratic process and erodes public trust in government.
How widespread is this phenomenon? OpenSecrets keeps an up-to-date database of representatives, staffers, and industry insiders who have joined this not-so-secret circle of corruption.
Just a quick peak reveals that the top five politicians with staffers running through the revolving door are:
Mitch McConnell (65)
Chuck Schumer (64)
Roy Blunt (51)
The late Dianne Feinstein (49)
Nancy Pelosi (48)
However, the impact is more apparent when you put a dollar sign in front of the numbers. Read on to see how much some recent officials have made after venturing through the revolving door.
It’s one thing to understand that subtle forms of corruption like revolving door politics exist; it’s quite another to see them in action. That’s when we’re able to fully grasp the detrimental impact of such practices on democracy.
In the 1970s, fewer than 10% of federal officials went on to work as lobbyists. By 2019, that number had risen to 59%. That percentage includes people working with lobbying firms, consultants, and trade groups.
Here are some recent examples that highlight the damage:
The Defense Industry: One of the most prominent examples of the revolving door can be found in the military-industrial complex (MIC). High-ranking military officials and defense contractors frequently transition between government and private sector roles. A notable example is James Mattis, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2017 to 2019. Prior to his government role, Mattis served on the board of General Dynamics, a major defense contractor. After leaving the Department of Defense, Mattis rejoined the General Dynamics board, raising his level of personal wealth and quite a few concerns about the influence of defense contractors on military policy. According to multiple reports, Mattis’ met worth is $5 million
The Financial Sector: The financial sector also has a well-documented history of revolving door politics. For instance, former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had a long career in finance, including a stint at Goldman Sachs, before joining the Trump administration. His deep ties to the financial industry raised questions about his ability to regulate the sector impartially. According to several sources, his net worth is $400 million. Similarly, former Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Chairman Gary Gensler left his government position to join the faculty at MIT, where he worked on blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. He was later nominated by President Biden to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), prompting concerns about his ties to the crypto industry. Since he took office, his net worth has increased by an estimated 650% to about $100 million.
The Energy Sector: The energy sector is another area where revolving door politics is prevalent. A prime example is Scott Pruitt, who served as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Trump. During his tenure, he wasted millions of tax payer dollars and reportedly had a fleet of luxury SUVs to carry him around. Depending on the source, his net worth ranges from $735,506 - $3.5 million. Prior to joining the EPA, Pruitt had close ties to the fossil fuel industry, and he continued to advocate for pro-industry policies during his tenure at the EPA. After leaving the EPA under a cloud of ethics investigations, Pruitt joined a coal consulting firm, further highlighting the cozy relationship between the energy industry and government regulators.
The revolving door between government and the private sector is a pervasive issue that undermines the integrity of public service and erodes public trust in government. Politicians, agency officials, and staffers are lured into potentially lucrative careers and away from public service, which is rewarding in ways beyond financial.
Amidst the mutual hand washing and back slapping, the public good becomes lost and largely forgotten.
Fortunately, individuals and organizations are finally making moves to stem the flow of corruption that goes in one door and out the other. States like Rhode Island also have policies in place to prevent the worst aspects of revolving door politics, but these measures don’t go far enough, and they can differ from state to state.
So far, 29 states have regulations in place that set limits on both the executive and legislative officials in their state. Five states - Arkansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Wisconsin - only place restrictions on the executive branch. All but Texas add a one-year cooling-off period before the lobbying can begin; Texas restricts former executive-level officials for two years after leaving office.
Nine state place limits only on their state legislatures:
It’s interesting to note that North Carolina only restricts lobbying or related employment within 6 months of leaving office; the remainder enacted a one-year cooling-off period. However, restrictions in Delaware and Indiana are limited to the General Assembly, and in Minnesota, the restrictions only affect their House of Representatives.
There are seven states that place no limitations on lobbying or influence peddling:
At the Federal level, such guardrails are nearly non-existent and mostly limited to senior officials and staffers. Under federal law, Congresspersons cannot lobby anyone in either chamber once they leave office; staffers may not lobby their former offices or committees they served on. Senior executive officials cannot lobby agencies within the executive branch.
However, legislative and executive officials can lobby anyone within other branches of government immediately upon leaving their position or office.
There’s also the “strategic consulting” loophole that permits former federal and state employees or officials to manage all aspects of lobbying so long as they aren’t the ones actually making the contact with agencies or officials within government. They can also hire themselves out as “consultants” to avoid registering as lobbyists.
In addition to enacting tighter restrictions and closing loopholes, there are several steps that can be taken:
Strengthening Ethics Rules: Current ethics rules and regulations surrounding the revolving door are insufficient. Strengthening these rules, including extending cooling-off periods and broadening the scope of prohibited activities, can help to mitigate the influence of corporations on government policy.
Increasing Transparency: Transparency is key to holding public officials accountable. Disclosing potential conflicts of interest and making information about the revolving door publicly available can help to shine a light on the issue and deter unethical behavior.
Encouraging Public Service: Cultivating a culture that values public service for its own sake, rather than as a stepping stone to private sector gain, is crucial. This can be achieved through education, mentorship, and fostering a sense of civic duty.
The revolving door in politics represents a significant challenge to the integrity of public service and the democratic process. The cozy relationship between government and business serves corporations over the American people, undermining public trust and shaping policies in ways that prioritize private gain.
Addressing this issue requires a concerted effort to strengthen ethics rules, increase transparency, and cultivate a culture that values public service. Only then can we ensure that the government serves the interests of the American people rather than the interests of corporations.
Independent candidates offer constituents an alternative to bought-and-paid-for politicians. Because their campaigns are often self-funded or carried by small, individual donations, they are less beholden to special interests.
You can join the movement toward government and industrial accountability by supporting independent candidates at all levels of government. Good Party provides information to help you seek out and vote for unaffiliated candidates, volunteer to support the independent movement, or run for office yourself.