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Spinning faster than ever

Washington didn't invent the revolving door. Theophilus von Kannel of Philadelphia patented the first one in 1888. But the Washington version -- traveling between the public and private sectors -- soon was in full swing.

As a D.C. tradition, the revolving door dates to at least 1897, when William McKinley named the head of the First National Bank of Chicago as treasury secretary. Under George W. Bush, it is spinning faster than ever.

The Washington revolving door has many models. There's the administration-to-industry version, in which officials cash in on their insider knowledge. Some civil servants don't even clean out their desks before helping their new bosses. Consider Darleen Druyun, an Air Force procurement officer who secured jobs at Boeing for herself and two family members while pushing through a $20 billion contract to lease air tankers. She called the deal -- which got her nine months in prison -- a "parting gift."

There's also the government-to-lobbyist revolving door. Since 2000, the number of registered federal lobbyists has more than doubled, to 34,750, and annual reported lobbying expenditures now top $2 billion. Leading the charge are ex-congressmen. According to watchdog organization Public Citizen, 43 percent of departing federal legislators since 1998 (excluding those who took another office, died or went to jail) registered as lobbyists.

And why not? The money's certainly better: Ex-Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana, now gets $2 million a year from PhRMA, a golden parachute for pushing through the Medicare prescription boondoggle. The Republican majority's greatest policy success -- outside of gerrymandering -- is the K Street Project, Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist's scheme to fill the plum lobbying jobs with their ex-staffers, loyalists and cronies.

The revolving door also works in reverse -- lobbyists and executives join the government to regulate their former employers. One study found that more than 100 high-level Bush officials oversee industries they used to represent. The poster-child here is J. Stephen Griles, who pulled off a double-reverse spin -- industry-to-government and back again.

Griles was appointed as the Interior Department's No. 2 after years of shilling for the oil and mining industries. Once there, he not only failed to recuse himself from cases involving former clients, but stayed on his old lobbying firm's payroll, collecting $284,000 a year. Then he left to lobby for industry with Andrew Lundquist, the Cheney aide who ran the infamous Energy Task Force.

Seizing on the stench of corruption, more than a dozen groups formed the Revolving Door Working Group (revolvingdoor.info) to push a series of sensible reform proposals: doubling the one-year "cooling-off" period in which ex-officials cannot lobby their former colleagues.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., already have introduced legislation addressing many of these concerns. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., are likely to introduce their own. "They'll pass significant lobbying reform in 2006 before the midterm elections," predicts Public Citizen's Craig Holman. "The Democrats' polling suggests this is a winner. And Republicans don't want the Democrats to take all the credit."

Of course, there's reason to be more pessimistic. Democrats have a sordid record on lobbying reform. Bill Clinton issued an executive order in 1993, prohibiting all presidential appointees from lobbying for five years after they left office. But in his final weeks, he rescinded the order, reinstating the paltry one-year ban.

And it's hard to imagine Republicans closing off such a lucrative escape route for their scandal-ridden legislators. Sen. Bob Packwood -- forced out of office for serial sexual harassment -- maintains a thriving lobbying practice. Former Rep. Bob Livingston, who resigned because of his own sex scandal, rang up almost $40 million in lobbying fees from 1999 to 2004.

Can DeLay be far behind? If Tauzin goes for $2 million, how much might The Hammer fetch on K Street? We could be talking A-Rod money. No wonder he can't stop smiling, even in his mug shot.

Craig Aaron is the communications director of the national media reform group Free Press and a senior editor of In These Times. Public Eye, which usually runs in this space, will return next week.

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