Technology industry

Should Congress close the revolving door in the tech industry?

Bringing together six Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) US Online Choice and Innovation Act illustrates the growing bipartisan momentum to regulate major tech platforms, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. But in parallel with increasing surveillance from the Senate and the House in recent years, another trend has emerged: increased investment in lobbying by these four companies. On October 5, Senator Klobuchar expressed a related concern during the Hearing whistleblowers on Facebook— that despite ongoing work on antitrust reform, many tech policy issues have stalled in Congress because “there are lobbyists on every corner of this building who have been hired by the tech industry.”

To put Senator Klobuchar’s statement in context, Amazon, Apple, Facebookand Alphabet/google currently works with approximately 320 internal and external lobbyists, up from 189 in 2011, in addition to other political and legal staff. According to data compiled by OpenSecrets, these four companies collectively spent more than $53 million on lobbying expenditures in 2020, up from around $16 million in 2011, making them some of the highest spending companies in this area.

Beyond spending, the commonly talked about “revolving door” of former Capitol Hill staffers switching to lobbyists, or vice versa, can have a powerful effect on political conversations surrounding big tech companies. Lobbyists frame certain policy positions by recommending statutory language, suggesting questions for hearings, meeting with congressional offices, supporting re-election campaigns, advising PAC donations, and more. The considerable turnover of personnel raises questions not only about influence, but also about the effects of frequent turnover: topics such as antitrust, privacy, cybersecurity and algorithmic transparency require political or technical knowledge important, and the legislative process can potentially stagnate when experienced staff leave. congressional committees and member offices.

Consideration of proposals to counter the influence of lobbyists

To address these concerns, some lawmakers have proposed measures to strengthen current ethics rules that temporarily restrict members of Congress and some staffers who wish to lobby after leaving public office. [1] Many recent proposals to reform existing restrictions target elected officials, who wield far more political authority and influence than staff members. For example, Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) reintroduced legislation in March 2021 to permanently ban former members of Congress from lobbying. High-profile calls to put similar safeguards in place have come from both sides of the aisle — in May 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) publicly defended for a “lifetime ban” or “at a minimum…a long waiting period” to prevent members of Congress from lobbying.

Yet some lawmakers have gone further, broadening that focus to measures that would affect the ability of former staffers to immediately enter the lobbying profession. For example, Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Close Revolving Door Act in 2019, which sought to increase existing post-employment lobbying restrictions for members of Congress from one year to six. Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) introduced the End of the Revolving Door Act to Congress in 2019 and 2021, which proposes to end pension and other government benefits for senior executives, as well as elected members, who become lobbyists. However, neither of these bills advanced during their respective legislative sessions.

Improve morale and technical expertise in Congress

Many proposals are aimed at mitigating possible undue influence on public policy, but it is also important to differentiate post-employment restrictions that may be appropriate for staff members versus elected officials, given their overall differences in policy. political autonomy and position. In particular, it is important to bear in mind that new post-employment restrictions for staff members could deter individuals from seeking government positions in the first place, especially if their career development paths are less defined. For potential staff members who have financial constraints, such as student loans or dependents, or who belong to traditionally marginalized communities and are more likely to experience systemic disadvantages or exclusion in the workplace, post-employment flexibility may become a particularly pressing consideration.

So, to both improve retention and make legislative employment more accessible to people from all walks of life, it is important to focus on policies that increase, not decrease, the ability of staff members to seek career advancement. , fair work environments and decent wages. To achieve this objective, it is also necessary to address the structural problems that can exacerbate the consequences of staff departures from technology policy – salaries, job satisfaction and investments in technical knowledge – in addition to introducing stricter restrictions after employment.

One of the most urgent actions to improve recruitment and retention on Capitol Hill is to increase salaries to keep pace with the rising cost of living, especially in the Washington, D.C. metro area. A 2013 Survey by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management found that 51% of congressional staffers who left office cited a “desire to make more money” as a major factor in their decision. In 2019, staff assistants earned an average annual salary of $42,272, a decrease of 16% compared to 2010 after adjusting for inflation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently increased the maximum annual salary for senior House staff from $174,000 to $199,300 and increased House office budgets by 13%, but neither of these measures resolves the pay gap between senior and junior staff. For example, Professor Joshua McCrain from the University of Utah found that even when House office budgets increased by 14% between 2008 and 2010, one of the largest increases in recent years, salaries at all staffing levels, including entry-level positions, do not have not improved.

Along with improved salaries, job satisfaction is an equally important consideration, as Hill employees can balance heavy workloads and tackle potentially stressful political issues. The same CMF-SHRM survey found that lack of professional development opportunities, work-life balance and stress were also commonly cited reasons for staff attrition. As such, it is important to continually re-evaluate and prioritize opportunities for telecommuting, family engagement, and other employee resources. Congressional offices could also consider clearer frameworks for career development, particularly to provide pathways advancing people of color and members of other underrepresented communities in higher positions (according to a Home Survey 2019 and one Joint Center Report 2020only 11% of senior Senate staff and 21% of House senior staff identify as a person of color).

Finally, it is important to consider ways in which Congress can advance technology legislation even if experienced staffers choose to leave. For those interested in technology and telecommunications, working in the private sector could provide an opportunity to gain a different set of skills and experiences. On the other hand, members of Congress can also benefit from hiring people with a diversity of technological knowledge, which often includes those with experience in the private sector. Even outside of the specific fight against attrition or post-employment lobbying restrictions, Congress can still support its tech policy work by more actively recruiting STEM employees, providing employees with training opportunities for technical skills , reassessing resources within the Congressional Research Service and Office of Government Accountability, and considering re-establishing the Office of Technology Assessment to shed light on relevant issues.

In conclusion, the US Online Innovation and Choice Act is timely and demonstrates remarkable bipartisan support. But, as Senator Klobuchar alluded to, it can be difficult to pass a bill to rehabilitate Big Tech without addressing some fundamental issues within Congress itself.


[1]: Former legislative branch employees currently face certain post-employment restrictions depending on their chamber, office and seniority. For example, former members of the House of Representatives cannot lobby any member or office for one year after leaving office, and former senators face similar restrictions for two years after leaving office. A professional member of the Senate Commerce Committee staff, for example, would be more specifically prohibited from lobbying his former committee and the offices of committee members for one year after leaving Congress. For a description of these restrictions, see 18 USC § 207 or “Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out: An Introduction to Revolving Door Restrictions», Covington and Burling, May 21, 2018.

Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are general, unrestricted donors to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations and conclusions published in this article are solely those of the author and are not influenced by any donation.