In Washington, John Boehner is generally considered a reasonable man with an unreasonable job. He's a personable Chamber of Commerce Republican who, as Speaker of the House during the Tea Party era, has found himself transformed into Congress's chief zookeeper. Boehner has managed the task with varying levels of success over the past couple years. But during the GOP's politically fruitless shutdown battle, he finally got "overrun" by his own caucus, as he himself apparently put it to President Obama.
Which is to say, I doubt many people would be surprised if after the next election, Boehner finally bid adieu to the frustrations of Capitol Hill, and said hello to K Street. There have already been rumors that the speaker is planning a career change sooner rather than later (rumors he has, in fairness, tried to quash). And given his tight ties to the influence business—in D.C., the speaker's wide circle of friendly lobbyists is known as "Boehnerland"— it seems reasonable to suspect that he might eventually find a home in a lobbying shop or trade association.
Lord knows, it would probably be lucrative. As a fun, purely speculative exercise, I spent part of the past week asking the leaders of some top Washington lobbying groups how much money they thought Boehner could pull down in their industry should he finally decide to leave government. Unfortunately, none of the seven I reached would speak on the record, seeing as it would be professionally suicidal for any of them to be caught chatting openly about the career prospects of a sitting speaker. But most guessed he'd be looking at a payday somewhere in the low seven-figures, perhaps between $1 million and $5 million a year, depending on precisely where he ended up. In his current thankless post, he earns $223,000.
"He has great value and great potential to be sought after and to be the subject of a bidding war if in fact he was out there and he cast a wide net," said one source.
Other prominent pols have certainly managed to cash in handsomely on K Street in recent years. Longtime Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, for instance, was paid a cool $2.4 million in 2011 as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, the film industry's powerful lobbying arm. And although he has never technically registered as a lobbyist, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle earned $2.1 million in two years as a "special policy advisor" at the law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird. Former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert's salary as a lobbyist at Dickstein Shapiro* isn't public. But other, far less notable former members of Congress have seen their earnings rise 900 percent or more after getting into the lobbying game.
What former politicians make in the industry is often "driven by what they’re capable of insisting on, regardless of their actual economic value," one lobbyist explained to me. And as a former speaker, Boehner would be capable of insisting on quite a lot. Since he could easily earn a comfortable living sitting on corporate boards and giving speeches for tens-of-thousands of dollars a pop (Daschle has pulled down $20,000 for appearances in the past), anybody interested in Boehner's services would have to pay a decent chunk of change to make the venture worth his time.
As another source I spoke with wryly put it: "I wouldn’t expect John to lose any money if he leaves" the Hill.
But what, exactly, would Boehner do on K Street? He'd have lots of options, but he might be better suited for some than others. One relatively straightforward route would be to become a registered lobbyist with a firm, and make a living using his giant rolodex to press companies' cases in Congress.
This is what most of us think of traditionally as "lobbying." It's also the path Boehner would probably be least likely to take.
Although former Congressmen are about as rare in lobbying world as boxy suits and comb overs, they have a reputation for often being pretty bad at the nuts and bolts of the trade. This might seem a bit counterintuitive, since the trade is mostly about convincing their former colleagues to vote for or against bills—exactly what they were supposed to be doing as elected officials, at least in theory. But making the transition from legislator to lobbyist can be unexpectedly difficult. Ex-Congress members find themselves stripped of their sizable government staffs. They're sometimes unprepared to drum up business on their own. And after the thrill of life in the House or Senate, some find working on client matters simply tedious.
There are, of course, very notable exceptions. In a few short years, for instance, former Democratic majority leader and presidential candidate Richard Gephardt has become one of DC's most formidable influence men. Erstwhile Louisiana Senator John Breaux and one-time Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott teamed up to create their own successful lobbying firm, which was eventually bought by lobbying giant Patton Boggs.
The bottom line, though, is that success as a traditional lobbyist requires not just contacts, but some hustle. And in the end, the speaker would likely have more relaxed—and equally remunerative—options available to him. “Boehner is never going to register as a lobbyist," said one source. "He is in the Daschle category."
What is the Daschle category? As I mentioned before, the former Democratic leader, who these days is hitched up with the enormous international law and lobbying firm DLA Piper, bills himself as a "special policy advisor." This is law firm code for "he walks like a lobbyist, talks like a lobbyist, but is not, in fact, technically registered as a lobbyist." Daschle would argue that he hasn't registered, and therefore has avoided having to disclose his clients and the issues he works for them, because instead of trying to bend ears on the Hill, he only offers companies advice. "I provide my clients with analysis, not access," he once told Politico. Others would say it's because he expertly dances around the strict federal rules governing who has to register and wear the scarlet L.
But while this debate has a great deal of import when it comes to efficacy of our lobbying regulations, it doesn't actually have much to do with the business rationale of employing someone like Daschle or, perhaps one day, Boehner. At the biggest law and lobbying firms, famous ex-politicians can serve as a mascot of sorts. Existing clients will pay good money to occasionally ask them for their sage advice about the goings on in Washington (one source I spoke with suggested companies will shell out some $50,000 a month for the privilege). And, when the firm is in the process of courting new clients, they can pull out their big name to help seal the deal.
“It’s like the former heavyweight champion who’s the greeter at a restaurant," a source told me. Or, to put it another way, it's the kind of gig where John Boehner would get to play golf for a living, albeit while schmoozing Fortune 500 executives. At the same time, since he wouldn't have to reveal the names of any clients or the topics he was helping them with, he'd still be able to pop up on TV and write op-eds for the Wall Street Journal as an elder statesman of sorts. It might also allow him time to pursue sidelines that would let him keep one foot in politics. "The nature of these guys...is they don’t wanna do just one thing," one lobbyist told me.
If Boehner decided he did want a job with a bit more executive responsibility, though, he could sidestep the whole world of law and lobbying firms altogether, and look to make his nest at a trade association. Chris Dodd drew attention for his move to the MPAA. But former members you've probably never heard of like Steve Largent and Billy Tauzin have made many millions of dollars heading up other industry groups. "Those jobs are a little more suited for someone like [Boehner] because they have a big staff and a lot of hierarchy," a lobbyist told me. "And that’s a little more recognizable to them." The catch is that to land one of those spots, Boehner would need to find a trade group in need of new management.
Of course, there would be plenty of other career options available to Boehner as well. Democratic speaker Tom Foley went on to become an ambassador. Newt Gingrich constructed a byzantine and successful network of consulting services, ran for president, and is now a TV talking head on Crossfire. Jim DeMint has demonstrated the potential for Congressional outsiders to influence Republican politics from his perch at the Heritage Foundation. And, given his vast network in and around DC, Boehner might even be able to start a sideline feeding information to hedge funds and Wall Street banks—which is apparently a booming business these days.
The point being, the possibilities are vast for the House's beleaguered speaker. And by now, at least some of them have to be looking mighty appealing.
*Full disclosure: In a past life, I worked for Dickstein's marketing department (don't blame me; I was considering law school at the time and wanted to see what it was like inside the belly of the beast). Unfortunately, I know nothing about Hastert's pay package.