Former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson earns award for service

Ben Nelson

WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Ben Nelson will collect $950,000 a year under the two-year contract he just signed to be CEO of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Nelson also will join a public affairs firm as a senior adviser. While his titles don't include “lobbyist,” his situation is an arrangement that some government watchdog groups have raised concerns about.

Nelson on Wednesday defended the current law, which restricts former senators from directly lobbying former colleagues in the Senate for two years after leaving office.

That “cooling-off period” was extended from one year to two thanks to a 2007 ethics law Nelson supported. Members of the House still wait one year.

But watchdog group Public Citizen says the cooling-off period has proved to be little more than a speed bump along the well-worn, bipartisan path from Capitol Hill to Washington's K Street lobbying firms.

A Public Citizen study found that 43 percent of members of Congress who left office between 1998 and 2004 went on to become registered lobbyists, including half of the former senators.

Many recently retired members of Congress have been taking jobs explicitly tied to lobbying: Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., has taken a job as senior vice president of federal affairs for Duke Energy; Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, president of McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies; and Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., senior vice president of public policy for insurance company Florida Blue.

“This is a very troubling trend,” said Craig Holman, Public Citizen's lobbyist.

Former three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, has a different perspective.

After leaving the Senate at the start of 2011, he immediately signed up with a big-time lobbying firm and started his own lobbying operation. Although he couldn't lobby his former colleagues directly, he could offer advice to clients.

As he neared the day he could start lobbying former colleagues, Bennett criticized the ban and defended the right of former lawmakers to make a living. His comments came in a December interview with the Salt Lake Tribune.

“Lobbying is a constitutionally sanctioned activity, right in the First Amendment next to the freedom of the press,” said Bennett, referring to the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. “I don't see any reason why I shouldn't exercise my constitutional rights.”

Public Citizen says the prohibitions should be tightened to provide broader restrictions on lobbying activities besides directly contacting colleagues.

After all, while Nelson is prohibited from calling up his former Senate colleagues, there is nothing to stop him from lobbying the executive branch, and he is free to plan and coordinate lobbying strategy.

With members of Congress typically commanding lobbying salaries between $1 million and $3 million, Holman said, there is concern that lawmakers will be influenced in how they vote by the potential for a lucrative job.

Nelson defended the current rules as already restrictive during a conference call Wednesday with reporters.

“They are restrictive, and they should be, and they will be followed to the letter,” Nelson said. “The role of a chief executive office, the CEO, is not a lobbying position per se.”

Nelson said he doesn't expect questions to be raised about his role as CEO. He noted that the association employs staff members who meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and that those activities will continue. He did not address his second post.

“I am not expected to engage in activity that would run afoul or would even be close to stepping over the line on the cooling-off period,” Nelson said. “I think the cooling-off period is good. I respect it, and we're going to follow it.”

Nelson emphasized during Wednesday's call that he and the association he will lead look out for consumers. He said the group would continue its push to preserve the state-based system of insurance regulation and prevent overreach by the federal government.

Insurance regulation will be in flux over the next couple of years, in part, because of two pieces of legislation Nelson supported, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law and the new health care law.

Contact the writer: 202-630-4823,

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