Should Congress close the revolving door in the technology industry?

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) speak with former Facebook employee Frances Haugen as she arrives for a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing entitled 'Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower' on Capitol Hill October 5, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Bringing together six Democratic and six Republican co-sponsors, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA)’s newly-introduced American Innovation and Choice Online Act illustrates rising bipartisan momentum to regulate large technology platforms, notably Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. But in parallel with the increasing scrutiny from the Senate and House in recent years, another trend has emerged: enhanced investments in lobbying by these four companies. On October 5, Sen. Klobuchar expressed a related concern during the Facebook whistleblower hearing—that despite ongoing work on antitrust reform, many technology policy issues have stalled in Congress because “there are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry.”

To put Senator Klobuchar’s assertion in context, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Alphabet/Google currently work with approximately 320 in-house and external lobbyists—up from 189 in 2011—in addition to other policy and legal personnel. According to data compiled by OpenSecrets, these four corporations collectively spent over $53 million in lobbying expenditures in 2020, compared to approximately $16 million in 2011, making them some of the largest corporate spenders in this area.

Beyond the expenditures, the commonly-referenced “revolving door” of former Capitol Hill staffers transitioning to lobbyists, or vice versa, can have a powerful effect on policy conversations surrounding large technology firms. Lobbyists frame certain policy positions by recommending statutory language, suggesting questions for hearings, meeting with congressional offices, supporting reelection campaigns, advising PAC donations, and more. The considerable exchange of personnel raises questions not only over influence, but also over the effects of frequent turnover: topics like antitrust, privacy, cybersecurity, and algorithmic transparency require significant policy or technical knowledge, and the legislative process can potentially stagnate when experienced staffers depart from congressional committees and member offices.

Examining proposals to address lobbyist influence

To address these concerns, some legislators have proposed measures to strengthen the current ethics rules that temporarily restrict members of Congress and certain staffers who wish to lobby after leaving public service. [1] Many recent proposals to reform existing restrictions are targeted toward elected officials, who exert significantly more political authority and influence than staffers do. For example, Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) re-introduced legislation in March 2021 to permanently ban past members of Congress from lobbying. High-profile calls to implement similar guardrails have come from both sides of the aisle—in May 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) publicly advocated for a “lifetime ban” or “at minimum … a long wait period” to prevent members of Congress from lobbying.

Yet some legislators have gone further, expanding this 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 the Revolving Door Act in 2019, which aimed to increase existing post-employment lobbying restrictions for congressional staffers from one year to six. Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) introduced the End the Congressional Revolving Door Act in 2019 and 2021, which proposes to end retirement and other government benefits for senior-level staffers, along with elected members, who become lobbyists. However, neither of these bills have advanced in their respective legislative sessions.

Improving morale and technical expertise in Congress

Many proposals aim to mitigate possible undue influence on public policy, but it is also important to differentiate between which post-employment restrictions may be appropriate for staffers compared to elected officials, given their overarching differences in political autonomy and position. In particular, it is important to keep in mind that new post-employment restrictions for staffers could discourage individuals from seeking government positions in the first place, especially if their pathways for professional development are less defined. For prospective staffers 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 a workplace, post-employment flexibility may become an especially pressing consideration.

Thus, to both improve retention and make legislative employment more accessible for individuals from all backgrounds, it is important to shift focus to policies that increase, not decrease, the capacity for staffers to seek professional advancement, equitable work environments, and living wages. Toward this goal, it is also necessary to confront the structural issues that may exacerbate the consequences of technology policy staffer departures—salaries, job satisfaction, and investments in technical knowledge—apart from introducing stricter post-employment restrictions.

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 Congressional Management Foundation and Society for Human Resource Management survey found that 51% of congressional staffers who left their offices cited “desire to earn more money” as a major factor in their decision. In 2019, staff assistants earned an average annual salary of $42,272—a 16% decrease from 2010 after adjusting for inflation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently boosted the maximum annual salary for senior House staffers from $174,000 to $199,300 and increased House office budgets by 13%, but neither action addresses the pay disparities between senior and junior staffers. For example, University of Utah professor Joshua McCrain found that even when House office budgets rose by 14% from 2008 to 2010—one of the largest increases in recent years—salaries across all staffing levels, including early-career roles, did not improve.

In addition to improving salaries, job satisfaction is an equally important consideration since Hill staffers may balance high-volume workloads and tackle potentially stressful policy issues. The same CMF-SHRM survey found that lack of professional development opportunities, work-life balance, and stress were also commonly-referenced reasons for staffer attrition. As such, it is important to continuously reevaluate and prioritize opportunities for telework, family engagement, and other employee resources. Congressional offices could also consider clearer frameworks for career development, particularly to provide pathways to advance people of color and members of other underrepresented communities to more senior positions (according to a 2019 House survey and a 2020 Joint Center report, only 11% of senior-level Senate staffers and 21% of senior-level House staffers identify as a person of color).

Finally, it is important to consider ways in which Congress can advance technology legislation even if experienced staffers do choose to leave. For individuals interested in technology and telecommunications, working in the private sector could offer 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 technology knowledge—which often includes those who have experience in the private sector. Even outside of specifically addressing attrition or post-employment lobbying restrictions, Congress can still support its technology policy work by more actively recruiting STEM employees, offering employee training opportunities for technical skills, reassessing resources within both the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office, and considering reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment to inform relevant issues.

In conclusion, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act is timely and demonstrates noteworthy bipartisan support. But, as Senator Klobuchar alluded to, it may be difficult to pass any 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 staff member on the Senate Commerce Committee, for example, would more specifically be restricted from lobbying their former committee and committee members’ offices for one year after leaving Congress. For a description of these restrictions, see 18 U.S.C. § 207 or “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out: A primer on revolving door restrictions,” Covington & Burling, May 21, 2018.

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