The lure of lobbying can be stronger for members tossed out by their constituents than for those who leave Congress voluntarily. They have less time to figure out what to do next, and they’re often not ready to leave—physically or mentally. Many long-serving lawmakers have made their homes in D.C., bringing their families and living in the same house or apartment for decades. Once they lose, it’s all over very quickly, forcing them to pack up their congressional offices during the post-election lame-duck session in November and decide whether to go for good when their term formally ends in early January. “They have to go back in a month and get thrown out of a building,” said former Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat who moved back to Seattle after he left the House following the 2016 election.
McDermott, then 79, announced his retirement a full year before the end of his term and spent the next few months fielding offers before deciding what he wanted to do: teach and travel. “The first question they asked me when I announced my retirement: Are you going to become a lobbyist?” he recalled, before answering the question with a loud cackle. “I said, ‘I don’t think the ice in hell is ever going to freeze over quick enough to carry me.’”
McDermott had lived in the same house in D.C’s Eastern Market neighborhood for all 28 years he served in Congress. But when he returned to the West Coast, he downsized to a 965-square-foot apartment in Seattle where he can see Mount Rainier from his breakfast table. He donated 1,500 books to the Library of Congress on his way out of town. “People offered me stuff, offered me this and that,” McDermott told me. “A six-figure salary would be nice, but with it comes a certain kind of pressure that you had in Congress. I wanted the freedom.”
Jack Kingston, on the other hand, was one of those members who didn’t want to leave. The 11-term Republican congressman from Georgia narrowly lost a Senate primary runoff to David Perdue in July 2014. Having given up his House seat to run for the Senate, Kingston joined the lobbying giant Squire Patton Boggs and signed on with CNN as a contributor after campaigning for Trump as a surrogate. “One of the things about politics is that it’s an itch that you have to keep scratching,” he said. “Most people want to keep a finger in the pie of policy or the politics.”
Safely out of office, Kingston was able to admit something few officeholders in this drain-the-swamp era would acknowledge. “I did like D.C. politics,” he confessed, “and I knew that I could stay involved with national politics easier being in Washington than I could do it from Atlanta or Savannah.”
Kingston had more time to plan than members who lose unexpectedly in November elections. Still, he said, it’s awkward for lawmakers to hunt for private-sectors jobs as a hedge against losing. (Senate rules bar current members from negotiating for a future lobbying position until their successor is chosen, although House rules are not as specific.) “If you know you’re going to leave, you’re ready to leave—you’re out of the closet,” Kingston said. “Whereas if you’re an incumbent member running for reelection and you’re job-hunting, you’ve got to hold it close to your vest like a super-secret nuclear code. Because you don’t want people to know you’re job-hunting, because if they think you’re getting out, why should they donate to you?”