The setting sun is reflected in the windows of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 22, 2013.
(Photo: Alex Brandon, AP)
WASHINGTON - The number of lobbyists leaving their advocacy jobs to work for Congress is the lowest its been in more than a decade.
Just 63 lobbyists have been hired to work on Capitol Hill so far this year, according to Legistorm, a non-partisan online service that tracks congressional data.
It's the lowest hiring level for lobbyists in a non-election year since the company began tracking such data in 2001, and by a wide margin.
The previous low was in 2003, when 138 lobbyists left K Street - Washington's informal term for the lobbying community - for congressional jobs. The high point was 219 lobbyists in 2011, following the historic wave election in which Republicans swept control of the House.
Lobbyists and former congressional aides say the dip is linked to a number of factors but most readily attributable to budget cuts.
Monte Ward, the president of the American League of Lobbyists, said the unpopular, across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration have tightened spending on Capitol Hill.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has also instituted about a 20% decrease in House members' office budgets since 2011, and salaries have been frozen since 2009.
"People recognize that members of Congress are having to freeze pay for their staff, or cut positions, or are trying to hire more junior people where they'd usually have more senior people so they don't have to pay them quite as much," Ward said.
Congressional jobs also hold less allure in the current political climate, where partisanship is high and productivity is low, say former staffers.
"I wouldn't trade my experience on Capitol Hill for anything. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but I can't imagine why anyone would want to go to the Hill these days," said Jim Manley, a former Senate Democratic aide turned lobbyist at Quinn Gillespie. Manley worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Congressional approval ratings have been at historic lows for much of the previous two years, and the congressional sessions in 2011 and 2012 were the least productive since at least World War II.
"It is becoming harder to attract qualified staff to the Hill," added Sam Geduldig, a former House GOP leadership aide now a partner in a lobbying firm. He said the current slump could be further fueled by new health care coverage plans under the Affordable Care Act, and confusion over how staffers will be affected.
"Obamacare has made it much more expensive for staffers in Hill positions, divided government means passing meaningful legislation is almost impossible, and increased partisanship has made the work environment more stressful than ever," Geduldig said.
Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, views the decline in lobbyists on Capitol Hill as a positive outcome. "I think it's an interesting and probably good unintended consequence," she said. Public Citizen has long advocated for restricting the revolving door - the practice of lobbyists and staffers moving in and out of Congress - so a reduction in lobbyists-turned-staffers is good, whatever the cause. "We're not sad to see that less folks from K Street are choosing to run back to the Hill," she said.
The flow of congressional aides leaving Congress for the private sector also dipped compared with previous non-election years, but is still occurring at a rate nearly six times higher than those leaving K Street for Capitol Hill.
Legistorm reports that 367 former staffers have registered as lobbyists so far this year, down from 585 in 2011.
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