One knock on Heath Shuler when he played quarterback for the Washington Redskins was that he never mastered the team's playbook. But after retiring from football and winning election to Congress, Shuler sure ran the game deftly, and he's just pulled off a flawless "revolving-door" play.
The North Carolina Democrat spent three terms in the House supporting the sort of green energy subsidies and fossil fuel regulations advocated by his state's power giant, Duke Energy. Now Shuler is cashing out and going to work for Duke's lobbying shop.
Shuler's path confirms what everyone knows about Washington: Congressmen, particularly sanctimonious centrists, are mostly lobbyists in waiting. But the Shuler-Duke affair also reflects an underappreciated aspect of Washington policy: The way to please giant corporations like Duke is not to advocate free-market policies, but rather to find the right blend of regulations and subsidies.
Shuler won a conservative North Carolina district in the Democratic tidal wave of 2006 and soon moved to the forefront in the House Dems' conservative Blue Dog caucus. In the first year of President Obama's first term, Shuler opposed Obama's stimulus and health care bills but voted for the president's other main policy initiative: the Waxman-Markey climate change bill.
Waxman-Markey would have required companies that emit greenhouse gasses to "pay for" those emissions with government-issued carbon credits. The credits would be tradable under a scheme known as "cap and trade." One obvious effect of this legislation would be higher utility bills resulting from the higher cost of burning fossil fuels, especially coal.
Republicans attacked Shuler for supporting cap and trade. The National Republican Congressional Committee called him a "Cap-and-Traitor." "After voting in favor of the job-killing cap and trade bill," the NRCC wrote, "incumbent Democratic Heath Shuler will have a tough time proving to his constituents that he has stuck to his 'conservative Democrat' title and not conformed to the job-crushing, tax-increasing liberal agenda." Liberals and Democrats, in turn, praised Shuler for sticking his neck out.
Shuler placed an op-ed in the Asheville Citizen-Times proclaiming that "if we love our children," Congress must pass Waxman-Markey. Shuler's article noted that the bill "is the result of impressive compromise, and is supported by a wide variety of groups, including Duke Energy."
Duke not only supported Waxman-Markey, the company also helped write it. Duke CEO Jim Rogers was a key player the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the corporate-led coalition that built the bill's framework. As Rogers testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April 2009, "I have been an early advocate, longtime advocate for climate change legislation."
Why did Duke, a leading coal-burner, back the legislation? In part, Duke supported the bill because it was generous with carbon credits -- giving many of these valuable permits away for free. But Duke also was retiring its old, small coal-powered plants, and a cap-and-trade scheme could result in the government effectively paying Duke (in valuable and tradable carbon credits) to do what it already was going to do.
Shuler voted for a bill that his state's largest utility supported and stood to profit from. And this passes for sticking his neck out?
Duke spokesman Tom Williams doesn't attribute Shuler's vote to Duke's lobbying, but to his district being "very clean energy-oriented." Williams told me that Duke specifically targeted Blue Dog votes for Waxman-Markey, but he didn't think Shuler was an individual target.
Environmentalist groups liked Shuler. The Sierra Club's Kelly Martin, who used to work for Shuler, praised him in Politico this week: "He voted to curb greenhouse gas emissions and repeatedly voted to support clean energy solutions."
He did: In 2010, Shuler requested a $2 million earmark for a solar farm jointly operated by Duke and the city of Asheville.
Shuler's 2009 cap-and-trade vote didn't cost him his seat in 2010, but it would have hurt had he tried to run in his redrawn district in 2012. So Shuler called it quits, and this week Duke announced that he will be the company's new senior vice president of federal affairs. In other words, he will run Duke's lobbying operation.
This was Shuler's little hook-and-ladder: Support legislation that enriches Duke Energy, and then get a million-dollar-a-year job at Duke Energy. Even if his cap-and-trade vote helped cost him a job in Congress, it may have helped him gain a better-paying job.
This is a standard entry in the Washington playbook. Democratic Reps. Earl Pomeroy and Bart Stupak, for instance, basically ended their careers by backing Obamacare. Both men are now lobbyists representing the drug companies and hospitals that supported Obamacare.
It's a pretty simple play, a lot easier than the complicated pass routes in the Redskins playbook, and Shuler waltzed into the end zone for a big score.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.