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Loopholes in lobbying rules allow revolving door to spin

WASHINGTON — A top aide to a Republican representative from Arizona helped promote a legislative plan to overhaul the nation’s home mortgage finance system. Weeks after leaving his government job he reappeared on Capitol Hill, now as a lobbyist for a company poised to capitalize on the plan.

A former counsel to Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee left Capitol Hill a year ago. He, too, returned to the Hill just months later, lobbying committee aides on behalf of Wall Street companies like JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg LP.

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And the chief of staff for the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee left his government salary behind in January 2012. Yet for months afterward, he continued to manage his boss’s reelection campaign, even while serving as a lobbyist for financial industry clients.

The experiences of the three Capitol Hill aides-turned-lobbyists — traced through interviews with political operatives and a review of public records — illustrate in new detail the gaping holes in rules governing Washington’s revolving door.

Federal ethics rules are intended to limit lobbying by former senior officials within one year after they leave the government.

Yet even after the ethics rules were revised in 2007 following a lobbying scandal, more than 1,650 congressional aides have registered to lobby within a year of leaving Capitol Hill, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from LegiStorm, an online database that tracks congressional staff members and lobbying. At least half of those departing aides, the analysis shows, faced no restrictions at all.

The rules are particularly loose in the House of Representatives, where aides and lawmakers enjoy significant leeway in hopping from job to job — and from government pay to six- and seven-figure private sector salaries.

In the three cases identified by The New York Times, the interviews and records suggest, the former House staff members did not violate the rules but rather seized on loopholes to lobby within one year.

Those examples, and the data analyzed by The New York Times, offer a playbook of the many ways that former officials can legally circumvent the purpose of the law. While the law’s limitations were known, the data highlight for the first time the extent to which lobbyists routinely capitalize on an array of loopholes.

Some aides resist pay raises, to keep their salaries just below the cutoff that would prompt lobbying restrictions.

More highly paid House aides, simply because their paycheck came from an individual lawmaker or leadership office rather than a committee they worked closely with, are immediately allowed to lobby former committee colleagues. This maneuver would be prohibited in the Senate, where senior aides cannot contact anyone in the Senate for a year.

In other cases, former House aides can continue socializing with lawmakers, working on campaigns and attending committee hearings while representing private clients as a lobbyist.

That loophole exists even though a lobbyist’s presence on campaigns and at committee hearings could serve as a reminder of pending requests by clients.

The effortless way former staff members avoid the one-year ban raises new concerns about the revolving door. Some critics say it fosters a clubby culture in Washington, where lawmakers and their aides might seek to protect Wall Street and other industries like health care from new rules and legislation.

When Congress updated the ethics rules in 2007 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which included illegal influence-peddling between a lawmaker and a former aide, it initially drafted tighter restrictions on the revolving door, arguing that a broader ban lasting two years might curb conflicts of interest in Washington.

But with protests from some lawmakers — including Representatives John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, and Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican — the proposal was watered down to remove the two-year “cooling off” period for the House and other restrictions.

The continued surge of former congressional staffers to K Street helps explain the fundamental change that is taking place in the lobbying profession in Washington, as former government employees accounted for more than 40 percent of all registered lobbyists in 2012, up from about 20 percent in 1998, according to a recent study by the Sunlight Foundation.

On some occasions, former congressional aides crossed a legal line and paid a price. Doug Hampton — a onetime aide to the former Nevada Republican senator John Ensign — pleaded guilty in 2012 to violating the one-year ban.

But such prosecutions are rare. The US Justice Department, which is responsible for enforcing the ban, does not actively police compliance with the rules, ethics lawyers who handle such cases said.

“Unless the violation is brought to our attention, it is hard to enforce,” said Michael P. Kortan, the chief spokesman for the FBI. And in interviews, aides-turned-lobbyists emphasized that there was no need to run afoul of the law, given the broad number of exemptions.

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