It Pays to Be a Conservative Democrat Blocking Popular Legislation

Why do conservative Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin oppose wildly popular progressive policy measures? Because it’s a very lucrative racket.

Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) leave the Senate chamber following a vote on November 3, 2021. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Much ink has been spilled trying to understand what’s motivating senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) to try to gut so many of the popular progressive policies in Democrats’ health care, climate, and anti-poverty spending bill. Why would the senators be so content angering their base and potentially threatening their chances of winning reelection down the road?

During the fight over Democrats’ social spending reconciliation bill, Sinema, for example, has played a prominent — albeit silent — role in watering down the party’s plan to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. She’s also helped gut Democrats’ plan to expand Medicare benefits, nixed tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations, and pushed to make the overall bill smaller. While Sinema isn’t up for reelection until 2024, she is polling terribly and already facing the threat of a well-financed primary challenge.

While Manchin has a personal financial interest in protecting the fossil fuel industry, he’s also worked diligently to deny new Medicare dental benefits that seniors in his state desperately need. Manchin has been on a fundraising tear this year, despite stating last week that he hasn’t decided whether he’ll run for reelection in 2024.

To understand what’s in it for conservative Democratic senators who play the party’s rotating villain role, look at those who came before them: many of those who do big business’s bidding and then either fail to win reelection or retire quickly end up scoring lucrative careers on K Street. It’s the ultimate win-win situation.

All of the former Democratic senators who publicly opposed a public health insurance option during the Obama administration, for example, ended up joining the influence industry — becoming lobbyists or corporate consultants, or working at a corporate-funded think tank, according to a Daily Poster review of publicly available records.

Today, with Democrats in control of Washington, corporate America has been relying on some of these former Democratic senators-turned-influence-peddlers to use their gravitas and personal relationships to help limit President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda bill and make sure lawmakers don’t pass anything that could threaten anyone’s profits.

It’s not hard to imagine Sinema and Manchin joining their ranks in the future. In fact, statistically speaking, it would be more surprising if neither of them did.

“Shadow Lobbying” Loophole

Most lawmakers nowadays take a spin through Washington’s proverbial revolving door when they leave office and quickly start cashing in on their connections.

In May 2019, the watchdog group Public Citizen reported that nearly 60 percent of “recently retired or defeated U.S. lawmakers now working outside politics have landed jobs influencing federal policy.”

Federal ethics rules require former senators to undergo a two-year “cooling-off” period before lobbying their old colleagues, but there are easy ways to evade post-employment restrictions and earn a quick buck serving corporate interests.

After leaving the government, senators often first take jobs as strategic advisors or partners at corporate lobbying firms and help advise clients and devise the firms’ influence strategies without making any direct contacts that would require them to register as lobbyists. This is known as the “shadow lobbying” loophole.

Former senator Joe Donnelly, a conservative Democrat from Indiana, for example, was named as a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 2019, shortly after he lost his seat. The firm said he would “advise clients in the financial services, defense, and health care industries, among others, on a host of policy matters.” Donnelly said in a statement that he was looking forward to “putting my legislative skills to work on behalf of many of Akin Gump’s clients.”

Last month, the White House announced that Biden will nominate Donnelly to serve as ambassador to the Vatican.

In May, following his 2020 election loss, former Alabama Democratic senator Doug Jones joined Arent Fox LLP as a counsel. The firm said he planned to “advise clients across a wide variety of public policy issues and legal matters,” and would “focus particularly on issues in the national security, health care, and financial services industries.”

Shortly after taking office, Biden issued an executive order gesturing at the shadow lobbying problem — demanding that administration appointees agree that for one year they won’t “materially assist others in making communications or appearances” that they would be prohibited from making under ethics rules. The order, of course, won’t affect the legislative branch’s revolving door.

Democrats’ sweeping voting rights and democracy reform legislation, the For The People Act, would crack down on shadow lobbying. However, Manchin opposed the bill this year after sponsoring it in 2019. Manchin has instead helped craft an alternative voting rights bill that would leave the shadow lobbying loophole in place — an indication he might be keeping his job options open.

“My Former Colleagues”

Many of the Democratic lawmakers who played the agenda spoilers when Barack Obama was president have become professional influence peddlers. That’s true for every former Democratic senator who publicly opposed efforts to include a government health insurance plan, or a “public option,” in the party’s 2010 health care law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Former senator Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat turned independent, was the most visible opponent of the public option in 2009 and 2010. He retired in 2013 and started working for the lobbying firm Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP several months later.

Lieberman doesn’t usually register to lobby, but his firm bio says he “assists corporate clients on homeland and national security, defense, health, energy, environmental policy, and intellectual property matters.”

He is also the founding chairman of No Labels, a dark-money front group for Wall Street and GOP billionaires that has been working to block Democrats’ reconciliation bill. The group has showered praise on Sinema for stalling the legislation, while Lieberman recently led a media campaign for his new book on the virtues of “centrism,” where he routinely touted Manchin and called on Democratic leaders to “accommodate him.”

Former Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln, a public option opponent who lost in 2010, quickly joined a lobbying firm before launching her own outfit, the Lincoln Policy Group, a few years later. Once a proponent of allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, Lincoln has been lobbying for Pfizer on “issues related to drug pricing.”

Lincoln has also led the fight against Democrats’ plan to undo some of the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts and raise the corporate tax rate as an advisor for the RATE Coalition. The front group’s members include companies like AT&T, CVS Health, FedEx, Lockheed Martin, Home Depot, and Walt Disney.

“As Congress navigates the question of how to fund the worthy goal of repairing our infrastructure, I strongly urge my former colleagues to avoid raising the corporate rate,” Lincoln wrote in an op-ed this summer. “Any increase would blunt the trajectory of our country’s economic recovery and serve as a barrier to the critical goal of Building Back Better.”

Another public option opponent, Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu, took a job at the lobbying firm Van Ness Feldman LLP in 2015, after losing her reelection race. Landrieu has been lobbying on behalf of Enterprise Products Operating LLC, a pipeline firm, over a provision in Biden’s budget that would raise taxes on publicly traded fossil fuel partnerships.

Former Arkansas senator Mark Pryor, a conservative Democrat who helped negotiate a watered-down public option proposal before the party dropped the idea altogether, became a partner at the lobbying firm Venable LLP months after he lost his seat.

Pryor is now a shareholder at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. The firm describes him as “D.C.’s go-to lobbyist to get things done,” and says he “earned a reputation on Capitol Hill as a ‘voice of reason.’” Pryor has been lobbying on Democrats’ reconciliation bill for the American Petroleum Institute, electric utility Duke EnergyAT&T, and General Motors.

“My Door Is Open”

Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee for much of the Obama era, led the process of writing the ACA and helped keep a public option out of the bill. He later served as Obama’s ambassador to China.

Baucus now has a consulting firm, the Baucus Group. It’s not clear who his clients are, but the firm’s website does feature a picture of Baucus saying, “My door is open.” In recent months, Baucus has spoken out against efforts by Democrats to close two different tax loopholes for the wealthy in order to fund their reconciliation bill.

Former Nebraska senator Ben Nelson, who prominently opposed a public option, immediately joined a public affairs firm after retiring in 2013 and also launched his own consulting company. The public affairs firm, Agenda Global, lists several fossil fuel clients on its website, including Chevron and ConocoPhillips. The firm also says it represents “doctors, private insurance companies, and university research hospitals to ensure that their respective interests are heard.”

Nelson’s own company, Heartland Strategy Group, describes itself as “a full-service consulting, issue management, and advocacy firm” that represents “corporate, nonprofit, political, and trade association clients.” Heartland Strategy Group says its clients have included Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Nebraska, tobacco company Altria, and TC Energy, the oil and gas company that sought to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

In September, Nelson told The Hill that Democrats would likely have to scale back their reconciliation bill, warning that their social spending proposal was too large. “I don’t know that anybody has the political strength to get $3.5 trillion, so I suspect there will be some negotiating along the way to come up with another number, or maybe in steps over the next three or four years,” he said. “That’s a daunting number.”

Kent Conrad, a former North Dakota Democratic senator who also opposed the public option, retired in 2013. He went on to become a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank whose donors include corporate lobbying groups, fossil fuel companies, health insurers, drugmakers, defense contractors, and big banks.

Corporate records show Conrad also signed on to the paperwork for Dakota Strategies LLC, a consulting firm led by his wife, who was a longtime lobbyist for Major League Baseball and the Children’s Hospital Association.

Furthermore, Conrad is a board member at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a pro-austerity think tank that’s received funding from conservative billionaire Charles Koch’s family foundation, the Koch network’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation, and the foundation led by Walmart family heir Carrie Walton Penner.

In July, Conrad wrote a column demanding that Democrats constrain their ability to spend money.

“As a former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, I am uniquely familiar with budget reconciliation,” he wrote. “I have seen it used wisely, and I have seen it used recklessly, and I urge the Senate to reinstate the rule we put in place in 2007: the ‘Conrad Rule,’ which prevents any reconciliation bill from increasing the deficit.”