SALT LAKE CITY -- Former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett is preparing to end a two-year cooling-off period and register as a lobbyist once a new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3.
The Utah Republican said that when he left office in early 2011 after three terms and set up Bennett Consulting Group with former aides, he had no plans to register as a lobbyist. He also joined Arent Fox LLP, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm and lobbying group.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports that while offering strategic advice to companies, universities and state governments, the 79-year-old Bennett has chaffed under federal restrictions on interacting with government officials.
He now calls the two-year ban a "really bad idea" and part of the "let's-punish-politicians-for-being-politicians attitude."
"Lobbying is a constitutionally sanctioned activity, right in the First Amendment next to the freedom of the press," Bennett told the Tribune. "I don't see any reason why I shouldn't exercise my constitutional rights."
Bennett said the public overestimates influence that former politicians have on policy. While he may be able to set up meetings with his one-time-colleagues, he said he can't get special treatment.
"The whole notion that there is somehow inappropriate influence is a myth," he said.
Bennett said pro athletes can retire and immediately become commentators and coaches. He said U.S. attorneys can leave their jobs and join a firm defending people against prosecutors they used to work with. He said politicians should be able to become lobbyists immediately upon leaving office.
But Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, argued the cooling-off period is too lax, not too restrictive. He said temporarily stopping former politicians from contacting members of Congress is not enough. He believes they should be prohibited from offering legislative strategy to clients as well.
"Right now it is little more than a halfway house when it comes to influence peddling," Holman said. "They are essentially selling their Rolodex, a resource no one else has. Their connections to members of Congress go to the highest bidder."
Congress instituted cooling-off periods as a way to minimize special access that politicians-turned-lobbyists have in Washington. House members have a one-year cooling-off period. Senators have a two-year period.
Bennett, after his defeat by Mike Lee, was one of 25 lawmakers who left office in 2011 and took jobs with lobbying shops, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Bennett Group, staffed by his former Senate and campaign aides, represents clients including Southern Utah University, the Utah Department of Transportation, JP Morgan Chase and the Financial Services Forum. Bennett doesn't expect that his ability to directly lobby will bring new clients and he doesn't expect to be the point person on any of these accounts.
He does plan to be involved at his own firm and Arent Fox when needed. He said flexibility is one of the things he has enjoyed most since leaving the Senate.
"There is a freedom that comes with heading your own team as opposed to being part of another team," he said. "And the pay is better."
Senators are paid $174,000 annually, while lobbyists can get salaries that extend into the millions.
Once Bennett registers, he'll have to detail what each client is paying him for his services.
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com