Prairie populist Byron Dorgan cashes out on K Street 

Iowa's Tom Harkin took to the Senate floor at the close of the 111th Congress to lament a retiring colleague. "I will lose a kindred spirit and a fellow progressive populist, Byron Dorgan," Harkin intoned about the senior senator from North Dakota.

Harkin should be consoled, though, by this week's news: His good friend isn't going very far. The prairie populist Dorgan will be only a short cab ride away, on K Street, working as co-chairman of the "government relations practice" at lobbying firm Arent Fox -- which means he'll soon be visiting his friends on Capitol Hill.

Arent Fox announced the hire on Tuesday, seven days after Dorgan's last day as a U.S. senator. The Democrat will be a "Senior Policy Advisor" and also "will serve as co-chairman of the firm's Government Relations Practice along with former U.S. Representative Phil English [R-Pa.]," according to the lobbying firm's news release.

Arent Fox also announced that retired Republican Sen. Bob Bennett was joining the lobbying firm -- this surprised nobody, given Bennett's reputation as an industry-friendly porker. Dorgan's cash-out, though, clashed harshly with the Left's portrayal of him as an anti-lobbyist, anti-big-business populist.

Harkin, in his homage, praised Dorgan for "fighting on behalf of family farmers and ranchers, struggling small businesses, ordinary working Americans, and anyone who has been run roughshod over by big business, big banks, or big government."

This is standard fare from the Left. Liberal blogger John Nichols at the Nation praised Dorgan as a "North Dakota populist." Another 2007 Nation article pegging Montana Sen. Max Baucus as "K Street's favorite Democrat" used Dorgan as the contrast.

One wonders whether Harkin or the Nation's bloggers ever visited the home of this "populist." I'm not talking about the small apartment in Bismarck that Dorgan used as his official address on Federal Election Commission filings -- I'm talking about his four-bedroom, 4 1/2-bath $1.1 million abode on a cul-de-sac in McLean.

How does a career public servant afford such a house? It helps to be married to the top lobbyist for the life insurance industry. Kimberly Dorgan is the "Senior Executive Vice President for Public Policy" at the American Council of Life Insurers.

His wife's job casts a less populist light on one of Dorgan's hobby horses -- saving the estate tax. At ACLI, Mrs. Dorgan has fought to save this tax, which compels business owners and rich people to buy huge whole-life insurance policies to avoid it. Sen. Dorgan has deployed class warfare rhetoric on the Senate floor to the same end.

Dorgan's populism and his lobbying connections have dovetailed on other issues. For instance, the liberal New Republic praised Dorgan for being "vocal on ... net neutrality -- [an issue] many politicians don't bother to speak out on."

It seems relevant that Dorgan's telecom adviser for 2 1/2 years, Frannie Wellings, is now an in-house lobbyist at Google, which supports net neutrality and stands to profit from it.

Wellings is one of two dozen public servants to parlay their time working for Dorgan into plush lobbying gigs. Five of his former chiefs of staff -- Lucy Calautti, Niles Godes, Elizabeth Gore, Andrew Kentz, and Bernard Toon -- are now on K Street.

Yet Dorgan posed as the scourge of K Street. His 2007 book, "

Take this Job and Ship It," bubbled with scorn for "corporate lobbyists" and the "legions of lobbyists" on Capitol Hill.

But over his career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, lobbyists were his No. 2 source of campaign funds. It's only fitting he will join their ranks.

Dorgan isn't the first of the 2010 congressional retirees to go to K Street. His longtime friend and former driver Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., announced his cash-out on his last day in office. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., is joining a K Street firm headquartered in St. Louis. And of course there's Bennett. These four won't be the last.

Federal law prohibits Dorgan from lobbying senators for two years, but he is already free to lobby the administration or the House. He might not register as a lobbyist, but even then he would be allowed to spend up to 20 percent of his time on lobbying, and would be free to advise clients and colleagues on lobbying strategy.

Brush aside the rhetoric, and it's clear that Dorgan was at home among lobbyists -- both figuratively and literally. Now he's one of them.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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Timothy P. Carney

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