POLITICS: Campaigns

Eric Cantor abandons his constituents in race to the high-dollar revolving door

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Virginia,Timothy P. Carney,2014 Elections,Campaigns,Lobbying,Eric Cantor,Dave Brat

Former Majority Leader Eric Cantor is leaving the swamp of Capitol Hill early to return home, to live and work among the people of Henrico and Culpeper Counties whom he’s represented for 14 years.

I’m joking, of course.

Cantor is a powerful congressman. Powerful congressmen don’t go back to their alleged homes out in the provinces. Most stay in Washington and get rich as lobbyists or quasi-lobbyists. A few of them mix it up and move to New York to get rich in finance.

When Cantor passes through the revolving door, it won’t be extraordinary, or necessarily blameworthy. But his announcement Aug. 1 — instead of serving out his term, he’ll vacate his seat, thus accelerating his entry into a lucrative private sector job — ought to be upsetting. It also bolsters one of the main arguments that led to his defeat on the June 10 primary: that Cantor wasn’t really working for the interests of Virginia’s 7th District.

Professor Dave Brat beat Cantor by running against corporate welfare, lobbyist influence and Washington’s self-dealing.

“Cantor’s real constituency wasn’t the folks back home,” wrote Robert Tracinski, Federalist senior writer and resident of the 7th District. “His constituency was the Republican leadership and the Republican establishment. That’s who he really answered to.”

“Guess what?” Tracinski wrote, “Folks in the seventh district figured that out.”

What better way to confirm this conviction than by declining to serve out his term? In quitting early, Cantor leaves his constituency without a voice in the House for at least a couple of months — and for the rest of the year if Gov. Terry McAuliffe declines to call a special election in November to cover the last two months of Cantor's term.

Winning a term in Congress isn’t exactly a binding contract, but it’s equivalent to telling your boss that you’re signing on for 2 years. Quitting early typically leaves your constituents unrepresented for a stretch and sticks them with a bill for a special election. Also, the voters hired you on the expectation you would serve two years. An elected official should stick around the whole term unless something pressing comes up.

Often, congressmen have a good reason to quit early. Sometimes the next job is open only at the moment, and won’t be open at the end of the term — like Hillary Clinton giving up her Senate seat in 2009 to become Secretary of State, or Kirsten Gillibrand giving up her House seat to take Clinton’s Senate seat.

Sometimes pressing family issues require a lawmaker to give up the commute and time demands of Congress — Larry Combest resigned when his daughter and father passed away within weeks of one another.

For Cantor, though, quitting early doesn’t look good. Cantor gave up his majority leader job July 31 — a sensible move, as a lame-duck majority leader who lost a primary would lack clout. But then he immediately announced he wouldn’t serve as a rank-and-file member. He plans to resign in the middle of the August recess.

Also, it confirms the grassroots skepticism about Congress being full of self-dealers. Cantor is sure to land a high-paying job in which his political connections are monetized. “He’s got a lot of private-sector friends he has done favors for,” former congressman Tom Davis (himself a lobbyist) told New York Times Magazine. “I think it would be easy for him to become Eric Cantor Inc. and make a few million dollars a year.”

Talking to other lobbyists and Capitol Hill Republicans, the betting is that Cantor won’t go to a K Street lobbying firm, but instead will land in finance — probably a hedge fund or private equity. There he can leverage his intimate knowledge of the House, and the close connections he made throughout the finance world in his role as the GOP’s liaison to Wall Street.

From a good government perspective, this route is preferable to becoming a lobbyist and using connections to influence policy. But to the regular American — to the average Cantor constituent — it still looks like Washington is a town where the insiders use politics to enrich themselves.

Republican leaders quitting mid-term is typical. Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert, Trent Lott all did it. (Lott quit just before a new law took effect that would have forced him to wait two years, instead of one, before he started lobbying.) It’s a norm, but many GOP norms need to go.

Cantor should change his mind and serve out his term.

On the other hand, if he leaves, that’s one less vote for the Export-Import Bank in the fall.

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