Brownsville Congressman Filemon Vela was already on his way out of office, having announced last year that he would not run again after five terms. But last week, Vela made waves by saying he’ll resign his seat early to take a job with Akin Gump—one of the most well-connected lobbying and law firms in Washington, D.C.
Vela, an outspoken moderate who was appointed vice chair of the Democratic National Committee by President Joe Biden, had apparently lined up the gig months ago. In January, he gave notice to the House Ethics Committee that—citing “negotiation or agreement regarding future employment”—he would recuse himself from any matter related to Akin Gump, which, as of last year, had more than 250 clients with lobbying contracts worth over $50 million, according to OpenSecrets. Of its 66 registered lobbyists, 41 percent worked in the federal government—many as congressional staffers, including a former top aide to Vela who was hired last year.
It wasn’t until a Forbes reporter unearthed Vela’s recusal that the congressman said he would resign in the next few weeks and go work for Akin Gump.
“The timing now, with just nine months left in the term—I’m just ready to go,” Vela told Forbes.
He won’t be going far. His future employer’s office is just a couple of miles from the Capitol on K Street, the notorious lobbying corridor. But Vela is just the latest member of Congress from Texas to make that well-trodden trek. With a record number of Texas incumbents leaving Congress in recent years—either by choice or by the ballot box—the revolving door is spinning at a ferocious pace.
Of the 15 members of the Texas congressional delegation who’ve left office since 2018, the Observer found that at least half have taken positions at lobbying and law firms, consulting firms, industry trade groups, and corporations that aim to influence federal policy in Washington or state policy in Austin.
“Sadly, it’s not unusually high,” said Craig Holman, an ethics expert at federal government watchdog group Public Citizen, of Texas’ revolving door rate.
Holeman’s own research found that trips through the revolving door hit a high point in 2019, when nearly 60 percent of the 44 members of Congress who left office went to work for entities that seek to influence the federal government.
Since leaving office, the Observer found that four members have registered as lobbyists at the federal or state level, working for clients on matters that they were directly involved in while in Congress. Several more have taken jobs and board positions at corporations, consulting firms, and industry trade groups.
“The revolving door is the most pernicious form of influence-peddling that we have not gotten control over yet,” Holman told the Observer. Firms are “hiring [former members] for their connections in Congress, to cash in on those connections on behalf of paying clients. Even though some may not actually become registered lobbyists, they’re all still hired for lobbying work. It’s really an abuse of their positions.”
While federal law prohibits former members of Congress from directly lobbying their old colleagues during a “cooling-off period”—one year for House members, two for Senators—this ethics provision means little in practice. Former members are still free to immediately start lobbying executive branch agencies and can still play a significant behind-the-scenes role in congressional lobbying.
“He can be part of the lobbying campaign. He can organize it, enlist the lobbyists, tell them who to call, and how to talk to them. He just can’t pick up the phone himself,” Holman said. “It’s a loophole-ridden policy.”
Former Congress members can command a high price for plying their wares on the private market. Depending on their rank, committee assignments, and overall stature in Congress, former members can expect to easily triple or quintuple their $174,000 taxpayer salary, Holman said. He’s heard of some former members pulling in more than $1 million a year.
Here’s a look at Texas’ rampant revolving door:
Soon after Midland Republican and former House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway left office in 2021, he launched his own lobbying firm with Scott Graves, his former chief of staff and committee staff director.
“Our relationships, combined with experience on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail, allow us to deliver tailored strategies to achieve the most advantageous outcomes. We provide our clients with unique access to key decision-makers and process insights backed by a track record of success,” the firm’s website states.
Conaway’s lobbying shop quickly signed on a roster of clients—with nearly $700,000 in retainers—from the industry that Conaway oversaw on the Agriculture Committee, including the American Association of Crop Insurers, Amalgamated Sugar, and Merck. Another client was Ripple Labs, a cryptocurrency firm that has been locked in a massive $1.8 billion securities fraud case by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has pushed to aggressively regulate the industry.
In Congress, Conaway was an active player in the intensifying debate over whether, who, and how the federal government should regulate cryptocurrencies—with Republicans like him taking up the cause as crypto’s champions. In his final year, Conaway filed an industry-backed bill that would allow crypto companies to voluntarily register under a light-touch regulatory regime administered by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is overseen by the Agriculture Committee.
After his cooling-off period expired, Conaway registered this February as a lobbyist for the Association of Digital Asset Markets, a group that represents 25 crypto companies and advocates for a self-regulated system of federal standards. Conaway will lobby for a “legislative framework and regulatory issues as they relate to digital and related assets,” according to lobbying disclosures. In practice, that may not be as dull as it sounds. A couple of weeks ago, Conaway was spotted at a “cryptocurrency happy hour” that was hosted by his firm’s client, Ripple Labs on the terrace of a swanky restaurant on the D.C. waterfront.
Congressman Lamar Smith, a Republican who represented Central Texas for more than 30 years in the House, was the first of the state’s departing members to spin through the revolving door. Within days of leaving office in 2019, Smith was hired as a senior consultant for Akin Gump.
One of the most prominent climate-change deniers in Congress, Smith promptly registered to lobby various federal agencies for several clients. Most notably, Northern Dynasty Minerals hired Smith as part of a $1.5 million lobbying blitz to fast-track the company’s plan for a massive open pit mine—dubbed the Pebble Mine—in the pristine wilderness of Alaska. Worth an estimated $500 billion in gold and copper deposits, the proposal has sparked broad opposition from environmentalists, fishermen, and tribal leaders
As chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, which oversees the Environmental Protection Agency, Smith was one of the biggest proponents of the mining project under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. During the Obama administration, he held a hearing titled “Examining EPA’s pre-determined efforts to block the Pebble Mine.” But the EPA blocked the project. Under Trump, he urged EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to reverse course. The push eventually fizzled out when the Army Corp of Engineers denied the project’s permit application. President Joe Biden’s EPA is currently seeking to stop it under the Clean Water Act.
John Culberson, a former Houston congressman who lost re-election in 2018, followed Smith through the revolving door: He joined the lobbying firm Clark Hill, which boastfully characterized his hiring as a “game changer” for the business. As chair of the House appropriations subcommittee, Culberson was intimately involved in federal spending policy for science initiatives and NASA. His clients have since included Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, for which Culberson lobbied for a highly coveted contract for NASA’s moon-landing mission Artemis—a bid the company eventually lost to rival space billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX. He was most recently registered as a lobbyist for a small specialty lobby firm called Federal Science Partners.
Soon after Corpus Christi Congressman Blake Farenthold resigned from office in 2018 amid an investigation into sexual harassment allegations, he was hired by the Calhoun Port Authority to lobby the Texas state government. The hire was controversial given that while in office, Farenthold tried to steer a federal contract to a company owned by the port authority chairman, who was also a campaign contributor. The chairman then proposed to hire Farenthold as the port’s lobbyist, which was done in a way that violated state open meeting laws, according to a lawsuit. Under pressure, the board deadlocked on whether to fire the former lawmaker. In late 2019, Farenthold announced his resignation.
As chair of the powerful House Financial Services Committee that oversees big banks, North Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling was the architect of Wall Street-backed legislation that rolled back core provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act and severely weakened the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
A few months after he left office, Hensarling was hired by Swiss banking conglomerate UBS as the executive vice chairman of its Americas region, working in its Dallas office. The company boasted that the well-connected politician would “strengthen our most important client relationships across our businesses.” Hensarling was following the path blazed by his political mentor and onetime boss, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, a fellow champion of financial deregulation who chaired the Senate Banking Committee before leaving office to work for UBS.
Of the Texas incumbents who exited office last year, Panhandle Congressman Mac Thornberry exemplifies how former legislators’ influence-peddling goes well beyond registered lobbying.
As chair of the House Armed Services Committee—one of the biggest nexuses of power in Washington—Thornberry burnished a reputation in defense and national security circles as a serious thinker, and among critics of the military-industrial complex, as one of the most ardent military hawks and unwavering champions of ever-bigger Pentagon budgets. The defense industry bemoaned losing such a staunch ally when he left office last year but soon lavished upon him the trappings that come with life on the other side of the revolving door.
In March 2021, he joined the advisory board—along with a coterie of former high-ranking military officials—of satellite surveillance startup Hawkeye 360, which is funded by venture capital investors and top defense contractors like Raytheon and Airbus. As the company lobbies federal intelligence agencies to privatize parts of its spy satellite operations, Thornberry has been a valuable public spokesperson for Hawkeye. In September, the company won a contract to support the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s satellite operations.
Thornberry also became a member of the board of directors for defense contractor CAE USA, a senior advisor for the security consulting firm Chertoff Group (founded by former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff), and a senior fellow at the giant defense consultancy RAND Corporation. He’s also an advisory board member for the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute, serving as an ambassador in its push for the Department of Defense to “build a margin of failure” into its budget for defense contracts that finance development of unproven technology. Last summer, Thornberry told Politico he had no intention of registering as a lobbyist when his cooling-off time was done in January. Indeed, he has not.
Other members who left last year include former Sugar Land Republican Pete Olson, who was promptly hired by the law and lobbying firm Hance Scarborough, which has offices in Washington and Austin. The firm’s founder, Kent Hance, and Of Counsel Jim Turner are both former Texas congress members. On its website, the firm said that Olson’s “vast knowledge of the energy industry positions him as a valuable asset for the firm’s governmental affairs and legal work.”
Honorable Mentions: Joe Barton, Bill Flores, and Will Hurd
Congressman Joe Barton, who took over Phil Gramm’s old House seat back in 1985, retired in disgrace in 2019—then seemingly fell off the grid. In November, Barton resurfaced with a lengthy op-ed piece in the Dallas Morning News in which he boasted of his political prowess in passing legislation that lifted the longstanding federal ban on oil exports on behalf of his close friends in the fossil fuel industry. His author description noted that he was launching his own “federal policy consulting business.” While he’s continued to contribute the occasional op-ed to the paper, it’s not clear what has come of his consulting venture.
Former U.S. Representative Bill Flores, a Republican from Bryan who departed in 2021, was recently appointed as vice chair of ERCOT as part of an overhaul of the Texas’ grid operator’s leadership after the deadly winter storm this past February. Among several other board posts, Flores serves on the advisory boards of the Texas Blockchain Council, which advocates for the state’s booming crypto and bitcoin mining sectors, and the corporate think tank American Council for Capital Formation in Washington.
Then there’s former Congressman Will Hurd. After leaving the Hill, he was hired by Allen & Company, a secretive investment bank that is perhaps best known for hosting an annual summit in Idaho where the rich and powerful gather together to meet, make deals, and commiserate. It’s known as “Summer Camp for Billionaires.” In recent years, the firm has become a major dealmaker for Big Tech mergers. Hurd is also releasing a new book called “American Reboot: an Idealist’s Guide to Getting Big Things Done”, complete with a promotional campaign that has predictably resulted in headlines speculating about his presidential ambitions.
It’s no coincidence that the revolving door now spins faster than ever. There is little actual policymaking that happens in Congress anymore, while campaigns have grown more competitive and expensive.
A cushy lobbying gig—with prestigious firms eager to pay top-dollar for a former member’s insider insight, policy expertise, and deep Rolodex—can be alluring.
“What a former member of Congress can offer clients is some insight on what’s happening behind closed doors and to advise on possible outcomes,” said Timothy LaPira, a professor at James Madison University who co-wrote a book on revolving-door lobbying. “It’s extremely valuable for corporations and trade associations to be able to anticipate what can happen next.” LaPira likened lobbyists to homeowner insurance—paid for in case of political emergency.
“There’s no guarantee of an outcome,” he said. “But stopping something or keeping the policy status quo is often considered an achievement in itself.”
Yet, this isn’t new. A Public Citizen study from 2005 analyzed congressional departures going all the way back to 1970: 20 House members and two U.S. Senators from Texas had become lobbyists—more than any other state except New York.
Look up a former member of Congress from Texas and chances are that in life after politics, they found lobbying.