Political manipulation and cynicism hit a new low in December 2012, when, just 30 days after being re-elected, Jo Ann Emerson, the ten-term Congressperson from Missouri’s 8th district announced that she was resigning her seat in Congress to become president and chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. According to the New York Times, “the electric cooperative, which lobbies for electric utility companies, spent more than $1.7 million to support candidates, most of them Republicans, in the 2012 Congressional elections, according to federal elections data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.”
[The Times reports that the lobbying group she’s joining did not contribute to Emerson’s campaign. That’s at least some comfort to cynics like me, who assumed otherwise.] But she did manage to uphold the fine revolving-door tradition of lawmakers who cash in by going to work for a lobbying organization—with the added twist of not waiting until after one’s term in Congress is over.
One could write off Emerson’s move as a uniquely dickish tactic, motivated by greed and personal ambition– punctuated by disregard for ethics and a who-cares attitude about the costs it will engender for taxpayers–but, unfortunately, it’s not an anomaly. It’s just the most high-profile in a rash of similar, jerk-the-voters-around, post-election abdications. I’m not sure anyone has been keeping close historical tabs on this phenomenon, but it certainly seems like the post-November-2012-election period could be setting a record for the most resignations by newly elected legislators.
Similar shenanigans happened at the state level, as well. Democratic State Representative Bryan Quirk announced his resignation from the Iowa State Legislature on Nov. 28, 2012, less than a month after he was re-elected—by a landslide. Instead of serving in the legislature, Quirk, an electrician, will be general manager of the New Hampton, Iowa, Municipal Light Plant. Apparently, his new employer asked him to quit the legislature. Quirk’s resignation will trigger a special election.
Nearby, in Illinois, 97th District State Representative Jim Watson (R-Jacksonville) resigned his seat just days after his re-election in November. Watson has been in the state legislature for more than 10 years. His new job title is executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council. The group represents–a genteel term for “lobbies for”–oil refineries, marketers and others in the industry. GOP chairmen in his district will decide on his replacement.
But the grand prize goes to Georgia, where a slew of just-elected people jumped ship almost before the state’s election authority could hit “save” on the official election spreadsheet. Georgia’s predicament is reflected in a recent article entitled, “Doesn’t Anyone Want to Serve in the Office They Were Elected To?” The author puts it this way:
In the weeks since the Nov. 6 general election determined the winners of 236 seats in the General Assembly, we have seen people resigning all over the state before they could even take the oath of office.
It’s not unusual to see someone resign from public office midway through a term; that happens quite often. In these instances, people are quitting before they have served one day in the office for which the voters picked them.
John Bulloch resigned after being reelected to his Senate seat in a southwest Georgia district, but he at least had a valid reason. He had some health issues related to his hospitalization for meningitis.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) stepped down from the Senate when he was offered a high-paying position with Georgia Public Broadcasting.
When Rogers resigned, a special election was called to fill his Senate seat. One of the candidates who qualified for that election was state Rep. Sean Jerguson (R-Holly Springs), who then had to resign from his House seat. That required another special election to replace Jerguson in the House.
The early resignations didn’t stop there. Robert Stokely, the Coweta County State Court solicitor, was elected to a House seat in the general election but resigned from that position six weeks later before he could be sworn into office.
In some of these instances, a state official will be appointing a replacement for the outgoing legislator. That strategy conveys an aura of incumbency on the successor making him or her harder to beat in the next election. An appointed successor also conveniently avoids the need to run a campaign and subject himself to the scrutiny and approval [or disapproval] of actual voters.
In other cases, there will be a special election to fill out the unfinished term. That’s the scenario in Missouri, where replacing Emerson means holding an election with an estimated price tag of $1 million.
Part of what makes these post re-election resignations so galling is that they flout common-sense ethics. In addition, they’re obviously calculated to keep the seat safe for one’s own party, without all that messiness of making your successor actually run for the job. Equally stomach-turning is the resigning politicians’ total disregard for the economic consequences to taxpayers of their decisions.
Clearly, the old revolving-door gambit—in which legislators and agency officials become lobbyists, and lobbyists become legislators and regulators—lives on. Periodically, public opinion pushes federal and local governments to put in place rules that limit this behavior. One example was the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which has been updated several times. But a recent study shows that about 57 percent of lobbyists who move through the revolving door from Capitol Hill into the private sector fail to adequately report their former government employment as mandated by the act.
And that’s just on the federal level. According to , the National Association of State Legislatures:
Thirty-five states have a ‘cooling-off period’ before a former legislator can come back to work at the legislature as a lobbyist. …Statutes range from Maryland, where the ban is until the conclusion of the next regular session, to seven states—Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York and Oklahoma—that ban former legislators for two years.
But fifteen states have no restrictions. In Minnesota, the ban only applies to House members, not those in the Senate. Ohio formerly had a one year ban, but the law was overturned by a federal district court in 2010.
Is the post-election free-for-all that we have just witnessed an indicator of a new trend of shamelessness and ethics-free behavior,? One can only hope that, in our lifetimes, our collective, moral pendulum will swing back toward higher expectations. I’m not holding my breath.