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September 22, 2018

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It’s time to put our foot down on lobbying

Jon Kyl has just been sworn in to take John McCain’s empty seat in the Senate. Two ways of looking at this.

The normal way is to shrug and move on. That’s certainly understandable. You’ve got a lot on your plate right now. Back-to-school wardrobes. Fall to-do projects. The fact that our president is a raving lunatic. Quite the platter, really.

The McCain family likes Kyl. He served in Congress from 1987 to 2013 and was an influential Republican. Retired when he was 70, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. And then ...

Pop Quiz: After Jon Kyl retired from the Senate he:

A) Spent more time with his family and served as a volunteer at 12 different hometown charitable organizations.

B) Took a job teaching at the University of Arizona, where he donated all his salary to the scholarship fund.

C) Became a lobbyist for the American Automotive Policy Council, Anheuser-Busch, H&R Block, JW Aluminum, Walmart Stores and others too numerous to mention.

Wow, you know I believe every single one of you picked C. Your cynicism is remarkable.

In some postelection years, more than half the senators who retire from office recycle themselves into lobbyists. The percentage tends to be lower for members of the House, perhaps because there are so many that even special interests can’t provide all of them with employment.

“If you want to make money, that’s fine. But not by cashing in on the public trust,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a phone interview. She’s proposing a lifetime ban on lobbying for every member of Congress and the Cabinet. “Go be a stock trader or a brilliant inventor.”

It is possible that you are already finding a flaw in Warren’s thinking, in that the number of senators and representatives who could support themselves by being brilliant inventors is ... unlarge. Also, being an actual stock trader requires expertise unless there is somebody giving you inside information.

Like, um, Rep. Chris Collins, the New York Republican who was recently indicted for insider trading. Our current elected officials had different reactions to this shocker. Some suggested that the congressional ethics system needed a good going-over. Others concluded that the entire affair was a plot by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department to deprive the Republicans of an easy win in that district.

OK, that last one was only Donald Trump.

But about the revolving door between Congress and the lobbying industry. You do not want people representing you in Washington with one eye out for a possible future career lobbying for the businesses they’re supposed to regulate.

Take the case of former Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who was the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the early 2000s. He worked very hard to expand Medicare to include prescription drugs. (Say thank you to Billy.) He also worked very, very, very hard to make sure the government couldn’t use its massive new negotiating power to bring drug prices down — the way most sane countries do. (Say what, Billy?) Then, after announcing his retirement in 2004, Tauzin became head of the drug manufacturers’ lobbying arm, PhRMA, at an annual salary of $2 million.

“The impact of money in Washington is felt everywhere. It goes far beyond campaign contributions. The revolving door is at its center,” Warren said.

If we really want to drain the swamp, this would seem like an excellent place to start. Close the revolving door and drain the swamp. (Readers have pointed out that the swamp metaphor needs revision, since swamps actually improve water quality and prevent flooding and erosion. Nominees for replacement include “drain the sludge pond” and “clean up the Superfund site.”)

But about closing the revolving door between Congress and lobbying. It would be a stupendous move that would completely change the way many members of Congress think about their careers:

“OK, I’ve put in my time in Washington. Now I’m gonna go home and campaign for the state Senate.”

“Well, the new district lines just aren’t going to work for me. I guess it’s back to running the funeral home with my sister.”

“I’ve loved serving the people of this state for the past 20 years, but now I want to spend time with my family. No — honestly. Just my family. We’re going to get in the RV and visit relatives in Toledo. Then there’s a real big basement do-over waiting for me.”

Sounds sort of cool, huh? But you know there’s got to be a catch.

“There are going to be ways to sneak around the rules,” said Tim LaPira, a professor of political science at James Madison University and the author of a book on the revolving door. “Secondly, it’s unconstitutional. Lobbying is clearly a First Amendment-protected activity.”

I say don’t give up the ship, people. This fall when candidates come around asking for your vote, say, “Promise us that when you’re done serving, you’ll come home.” Make them put it on their website. And tell them you want to know how to make the same rules for everyone else.

Demand the whole package. If people in Washington think you’re irrational, what the heck. It works for the guy in the White House.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.