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Learn more about Rootstrikers at www.rootstrikers.org
NASHVILLE — Democratic challengers in Tennessee's 3rd and 4th congressional districts vow that if voters send them to Washington in November, they won't follow the well-worn path of making money by lobbying Congress after leaving office.
Dr. Mary Headrick, who faces Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in the 3rd District, and Eric Stewart, a state senator challenging 4th District Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, both signed an anti-lobbying pledge circulated by Rootstrikers, a national network of activists fighting what it calls the "corrupting influence of money in politics."
Neither incumbent has signed, though both said they don't intend to become lobbyists after they leave Congress.
The pledge is a promise not to profit from lobbying Congress for at least 10 years after leaving office. Headrick called it "easy to sign."
The group was founded by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who once clerked for conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Rootstrikers' pledge gained attention last week after U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., became the first sitting congressman to sign the pledge this election cycle and said, "I hope others will join me."
"Serving the public used to be considered the highest calling," Cooper said in a statement. "Now, many see it as a steppingstone to lucrative lobbying careers."
Headrick, a Maynardville physician, said she signed because "there's too much greed, and this has sort of put a regulation on that if you choose to participate."
She said she was initially worried that the pledge "would prevent free citizen lobbying for things I believe in, like feeding hungry kids."
The pledge doesn't prevent that. Those who sign agree to turn any compensation over to nonprofit, nonpolitical charities.
Stewart campaign manager Kevin Teets said the candidate signed because he "wants to be a voice for working families in Tennessee's 4th Congressional District and has no desire to go into lobbying."
Asked if he will sign the pledge, Fleischmann, a freshman lawmaker from Chattanooga, released a written statement.
"I am a believer in always doing things to promote transparency in government; I believe the revolving door between Congress and lobbyists is far too cozy," he wrote.
The congressman said he will "track down Congressman Cooper soon to talk with him about the details of the pledge."
DesJarlais, a Jasper physician running for a second term, said in a statement, "I didn't run for Congress to become a career politician and have term-limited myself to 6 terms in the House."
After than, he said, "I hope to return to my medical practice in Marion County with my wife, Amy."
His office did not respond to a follow-up question on whether he would consider signing the "no-lobby pledge."
'Lucrative job offers'
In a recent opinion piece in the online Huffington Post, Lessig warned of the "corrupting influence that has evolved within our Congress — that too many, including Members and their staff, view Capitol Hill as a 'farm league for K St.'"
Washington's K Street, where many lobby and law firms have their offices, has become the popular shorthand for the legions of lobbyists and lawyers who make their livings advocating for clients.
Rootstrikers says House and Senate members, who are paid $174,000 annually, can earn on average 1,452 percent more by lobbying their former colleagues.
Craig Holman, of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said the situation is a "huge problem" and "exceedingly corruptive."
Lobbyists and special interests can dangle "very lucrative job offers" in front of sitting lawmakers they wish to influence, he said.
He estimated that a former congressman or senator can earn from $1 million to $3 million a year lobbying.
"The revolving door is really one of the most pernicious problems that we have on Capitol Hill," Holman said.
Holman, who follows lobbying issues for Public Citizen, jokes he is one of the few lobbyists in Washington who openly admits to being one.
The Center for Responsive Politics lists dozens of former House and Senate members who "now receive handsome compensation from corporations and special interests as they attempt to influence the very federal government in which they used to serve," he said.
Others fly under the radar as "senior strategists" or government policy advisers. That allows them to avoid having to register as lobbyists and come under restrictions, Holman said.
Under 2007 reforms, former House members have a one-year "cooling-off" period in which they can't lobby. Former senators must wait two years.
Holman favors extending that for another year. Lessig's 10-year proposal seems "long," he said.
Tennesseans on K Street
A number of former Republican and Democratic lawmakers from Tennessee currently lobby or once did.
The most recent to join the ranks are former U.S. Reps. John Tanner and Bart Gordon, both Tennessee Democrats who didn't seek re-election in 2010. Both are registered on behalf of several clients, U.S. House lobby filings show.
Former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, who also served in the House, has his own firm and is registered to lobby. Former U.S. Reps. Van Hilleary, a Republican, and Bob Clement, a Democrat, are registered as well.
Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., is not registered to lobby.
After leaving Congress for an unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial bid, the Chattanoogan founded Zach Wamp Consulting.
The firm specializes in energy, defense/security, transportation and workforce development/technology transfer, according to its website.
In an interview, Wamp said, "I have avoided lobbying by doing business-development work."
He said he considered opening a Washington office but decided not to do so, adding, "The air's a lot fresher in the real world, in the private sector."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...