Ex-House Chair Working on Pensions as Lobbyist Now

By David B. Brandolph

Former Rep. George Miller’s name is attached to a law that aimed to fix pension plans for unionized workers. Now that he’s out of Congress, he’s lobbying to alter regulations under that law and for other pension changes.

The United Association of Plumbing and Pipefitters has paid the former Democratic chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee $150,000 to lobby the Treasury Department to ensure that it fully implements the Kline-Miller Act, also known as the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014, according to lobbying disclosure documents.

He’s also lobbying his former committee on behalf of the union for a “composite plan” proposal designed to convert some unionized pensions to 401(k)-type plans. Building trades unions were the top contributor to Miller’s campaign fund while he was in office, according to the website OpenSecrets.org. Those contributions topped $600,000.

Lobbying by former legislators in areas they once focused on in Congress raises questions about the adequacy of current rules restricting lobbying, government ethics watchdogs told Bloomberg BNA.

Retirees Unhappy

Retiree groups were already upset with Miller, who decided to leave Congress at the end of 2014 after serving his California district for 38 years. They say the law Miller supported subjects retirees to severe benefit cuts that could result in financial hardship. MPRA proponents argued that the law was the best chance to prevent many plans from becoming insolvent and thereby costing up to a million retirees most of their benefits.

That Miller is lobbying on the law has given retiree groups more reason to be agitated. Mike Walden, a retired Teamster from Ohio who is executive director of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions, told Bloomberg BNA in a June 7 email that he thinks it’s unfair that former lawmakers, like Miller, can be paid to lobby on issues that harm retirees.

Other former House members, including Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), also conducted MPRA-related lobbying after they left office, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Neither Miller, Pomeroy, nor the Plumbers union responded to Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comments. Bloomberg BNA was unable to reach Andrews.

Ethics Issues

Lobbying by former members of Congress, even if compliant with the one-year restriction on lobbying under federal law, raises the eyebrows of government watchdogs.

“Congress’ imposition of a cooling-off period for former lawmakers to communicate back to the legislative branch on official government business reflects an uneasy balance,” Kathleen Clark, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis told Bloomberg BNA.

On the one hand, there’s a legitimate argument that when people and organizations seek to petition the government, they may appropriately benefit from the experience of former members of Congress, she said. There’s also concern that former members of Congress may inappropriately trade on their former position and the relationships they developed, said Clark, a former congressional staffer who writes frequently on government ethics issues and practices law in Washington.

The law restricts former House members from lobbying Congress for one year but doesn’t restrict lobbying of the executive branch to change rules, as Miller appears to be doing regarding the MPRA.

“Hiring former members of Congress as lobbyists is one of the most pernicious and yet effective tools for influence peddling on Capitol Hill,” Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, a Washington-based government watchdog, told Bloomberg BNA in an email. Former members of Congress, particularly those only a few years out of office, are most cherished by lobbying firms and come at an expensive price, he said.

There are two critical concerns with lobbying by former lawmakers, Holman said. First, does the prospect of lucrative outside employment as a lobbyist influence actions taken by the member while in public office? Second, the revolving door is a tool of influence peddling available only to the very wealthy special interests that can afford them.

Call for Longer Restrictions

Government ethics watchdogs have called for longer lobbying restrictions. In the Senate, the restriction is for two years.

“Longer cooling-off periods would slow down the revolving door and curb efforts to hire former legislators to obtain competitive advantage and influence government laws, policies, and spending,” Scott Amey, general counsel for the Washington-based consumer watchdog Project on Government Oversight, told Bloomberg BNA in an email.

He said a two- to three-year lobbying prohibition for House members would be about right. Holman said the restriction needs to be long enough to prevent former members from cashing in on their relationships with Congress.

Not all agree that such lobbying poses serious risks.

“It’s not unusual for former members of Congress to come back to Capitol Hill and lobby on issues they are interested in,” Randy DeFrehn, the former executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans, told Bloomberg BNA. The NCCMP, a group comprising employers and unions, hired Pomeroy and Andrews to lobby on behalf of the MPRA.

Current lawmakers and staff know that these former legislators are engaged in lobbying, he said. The only advantage former elected officials have when they return to Congress is the respect they have earned as “honest brokers,” said DeFrehn, who is now principal at DeFrehn & Associates in Washington.

To contact the reporter on this story: David B. Brandolph in Washington at dbrandol@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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