Editorial: Chris Stewart’s career change is small but smelly example of what’s wrong with Washington

Ex-members of Congress should have at least a five-year ban on lobbying their former colleagues

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks at an event for the Sutherland Institute at the University of Utah, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.

In 1995, then-Air Force Capt. Chris Stewart was part of a crew that set the record for the fastest non-stop flight around the world.

Operation Coronet Bat saw two B-1B bombers fly all the way around the planet, without landing, make practice bomb runs over three continents, achieve six midair refuelings, and get back to Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, all in 36 hours and 13 minutes. Average speed, 631 mph.

They don’t keep records for how quickly members of Congress spin through the Washington revolving door to hire themselves out as lobbyists. If they did, Stewart might have another, if less honorable, claim to fame.

At the end of May, Stewart, then Utah’s 2nd District member of Congress, announced that he would be resigning his seat, as of Sept. 15. The Republican said he would leave the House nine months into his sixth term to care for his wife, whose health was failing. The announcement drew praise even from many of Stewart’s critics, who honored him for putting family above politics.

On June 28, Stewart incorporated Skyline Capitol, a company that, it was announced on Sept. 19, would provide consulting and lobbying services in collaboration with another, more established, concern called American Global Strategies.

Stewart’s quick career change hardly registers on the Washington Swamp-O-Meter. It is perfectly legal — though it shouldn’t be. But it is just another reason that Americans think their government doesn’t serve them, but the rich and well-connected.

The compensation for most U.S. Senators and Representatives is $174,000. And while this is far more than what the average American earns - the real median household income was $74,580 in 2022 - it is far less than what an ex-politician can make as a lobbyist.

Consider the atmosphere in which this news comes.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is dogged by a constant stream of reports that he has accepted numerous luxury vacations and other perks offered by wealthy individuals and corporations that have cases before the high court. These are relationships that would get him kicked off of any jury, yet he is allowed to sit in judgement on cases that will not only affect the parties immediately involved, but also set legal precedents for the whole country.

Open Secrets reported the Supreme Court’s nine justices disclosed taking a combined 64 trips in 2018 in which transportation, food and lodging were reimbursed by others. Justices from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Stephen Breyerhave disclosed taking hundreds of trips reimbursed by others, to Israel, Europe, Japan, India and Hawaii.

The New York Times reported in 2022 that at least $6.4 million of funds raised by the annual Supreme Court Historical Society fundraiser came from corporations, special interest groups or lawyers with business before the court.

Stewart’s transition is not on the same planet with those wrongdoings. But it is in the same universe.

It is not rare for a former member of Congress to hang out a shingle as a lobbyist. It happens with depressing regularity. The last Democrat Utah sent to Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, did the same after he left office in 2015.

Stewart’s new career does not justify the online snark from those now doubting the story about his wife’s health. The fact is that, as a lobbyist, Stewart should have a lot more free time to attend to family responsibilities than he would as a member of Congress. And make more money, too.

No committee hearings. No caucus meetings. No sprinting to the floor of the House for another roll call. Very little chance of being caught in the middle of a violent insurrection.

Yes, there are rules. Former members of Congress, for example, face a one-year ban on engaging in any direct lobbying of their former colleagues.

But even with that limit, former representatives and senators can lend their names to lobbying firms. Share their iPhone contacts. Coach junior partners on how to influence members of Congress and their staffs.

What is so smelly about all of this is that Stewart, like others who have crossed this river, is not just selling his industry or his judgment. He is renting out the knowledge and, more important in Washington, the vast network of connections he built up while on the public payroll.

The law should be changed so that members of Congress cannot be paid to lobby their former colleagues — or even advise others on how to influence them — for at least five years after leaving office.

Of course, with only future former members of Congress able to make such a law, chances of it happening are small.

Stewart’s value as a lobbyist is greater even than that enjoyed by many other former members of Congress. He served on two key committees — the House Select Committee on Intelligence and the Appropriations Committee.

The connections and knowledge he gained there, along with his service in the Air Force and a previous turn as a security consultant, will make him a valuable and highly paid resource for defense and security contractors, other governments and anyone else who has much riding on decisions made in Washington.

Valuable to them, but not to you.