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Association leadership searches don't often include members of Congress, and, conversely, senators and representatives usually don't consider association careers. However, that may be changing.

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From Hill to Here

By Fred H. Hutchison

Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who leave voluntarily often do so to take jobs in the private sector. Although some go back home and resume their original careers, many become lobbyists, either independently or at one of Washington's hundreds of law and government relations firms. Only rarely do former members of Congress choose the association option.

Executive Update interviewed several former members who are or have been successful association leaders to learn why more of their colleagues don't follow in their footsteps. The results may surprise you, especially in light of recent news reports about Representative Billy Tauzin (R-LA), who was approached — while still a sitting member — by two high-wattage trade groups, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association.

Saying Goodbye
For three years, Tauzin chaired the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, and conventional wisdom said he'd be crazy to give up his safe-seat and hard-earned seniority at the very zenith of his congressional career. Conventional wisdom was wrong. In February, Tauzin relinquished his gavel and announced his resignation at term's end after facing the same difficult situation as most senior House and Senate members:

Congress, like America, has been nearly evenly split between the two major political parties for the last 10 years.


The resulting power struggle has taken a toll on comity and bipartisanship.


Several long-term institutional trends have converged to make it much more difficult to secure positive legislative results in either chamber.


Rules imposed by House and Senate Republicans on themselves in 1995 limit committee and subcommittee chairs to six-year terms.


Even members from relatively safe states or districts are forced to spend time almost every day raising funds for their reelection campaigns.


Although rank-and-file senators and representatives are paid well ($158,100), their salaries have not kept pace with inflation, and these leaders could earn far more away from Capitol Hill.


Generous pension benefits encourage early retirement. Members of the House and Senate who have served five years can start collecting a limited pension at age 62, and those with 20 years of service can begin collecting it at age 50.

No wonder many senior-level but still relatively young members eventually give up the lifelong congressional career ambitions that many of them had when first elected. If a health problem surfaces (as in Tauzin's case with an ulcer), then the decision to "leave before they carry me out" becomes even easier to make.

Why So Shy?
Leading an association ought to be at or near the top of a congressperson's list of options after they leave Capitol Hill. After all, trade and professional associations have long been essential parts of America's political landscape. Many of the largest and best-known associations have roots that go back 100 to 150 years. For example, the American Forest & Paper Association — now led by former six-term congressman W. Henson Moore (R-LA) — originated in 1878 as the American Paper Makers Association.

Another reason former Congress members ought to consider the association option is that nearly all major associations include federal government relations as a primary raison d'κtre. Former Representative James K. Coyne (R-PA), president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), often refers to associations as "citizen-participation groups." He reminds audiences that the key public policy mission of NATA and other trade groups is explicitly authorized by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the "right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Former Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-CO), who served in Congress for 12 terms, says that her position as CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) lets her continue to shape public policy in exciting areas such as intellectual property rights and freedom of speech. "AAP gives me the perfect opportunity to continue to work on issues for which I have a lot of passion and knowledge," Schroeder says.

Clearly, associations are centers of political influence and hotbeds for the germination of public policy ideas. Given these facts, why is it that only a handful of former members go on to become association leaders?

Larry LaRocco (D-ID) is the 2003-2004 president of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMC) and former head of both the ABA Securities Association and the American Bankers Insurance Association (separately chartered affiliates of the American Bankers Association). LaRocco says that USAFMC's biennial program for retiring members of Congress usually includes a speaker from an association. Nonetheless, USAFMC's membership roster of 550-plus individuals includes only about a dozen former members who are now or have recently run associations.

LaRocco and other former members list numerous reasons why more of their colleagues don't end up in the association world.

Association management is hard work. Surprisingly, this was the first thing that all of the interviewees said. The hours are long. Association members can be demanding. And association CEOs have to spend more time than they would like working on human resource and internal management issues. As Moore notes, "I work five, six, and sometimes seven days a week. Unlike some of my former colleagues, I don't get to take extended golf trips to Florida."

The timing must be exactly right. Perhaps the principal reason more members of Congress don't end up as association CEOs is that the timing has to be just right. The top slots at major associations — those that pay salaries competitive with law and lobbying firms — simply don't open up often. Unless an association search committee is looking for a CEO at exactly the same time that a former senator or representative is in the job market, the two will never meet.

Ex-legislators generally can make more money by lobbying. Of note, though, is that legislators-turned-association leaders interviewed agreed that money was not the primary reason why they took the job.

Ex-members sometimes believe that their careers will be more rewarding if they have associations among a larger group of clients. After a member leaves Congress, they often sit down with their Rolodex and think about all of the people "on the outside" with whom they have established connections. Although federal law prohibits former members from lobbying their old colleagues and congressional staff for a year, nothing in the statute prevents them from providing "strategic advice" to clients or from lobbying executive branch officials. Thus, former members have lots of ways to put their government relations talents to work.

As LaRocco explains, "After you pack up your office, you make a list of the people you know — including the association guys — and you start thinking, 'A whole lot of these folks could use my help.' As a result, many former members come to the conclusion that it would be more financially rewarding to have an association as one of several clients rather than their sole employer. Since I wanted some association experience under my belt, I decided to go with the bankers, but most other members make the other choice."

The association world isn't for the independent. Both Moore and Schroeder opine that most senators and representatives may simply be too independent-minded for the association world. "A member of Congress doesn't report to a board of directors," Moore notes. "It's a place of entrepreneurs and independent contractors. Once you're in that mindset, it's hard to shake it." Schroeder agrees, adding, "I know a lot of former members who have one office in Washington and another in their old district. I see them coming and going at the airport, and I think, 'I wish I could get away with that!'"

The top spot at an association also is not a place for the legislative generalist. Former legislators also say that what really enticed them into the association sphere was the chance to "drill down into a specific set of issues." For Moore it was environmental policy and regulation, for Coyne aviation issues, for Schroeder copyright and freedom of speech, and for LaRocco financial services matters. All of them say, in one way or another, that they like working for a single client on a fairly narrow range of issues.

There's not much time to rub shoulders with old colleagues. Former Representative Glenn L. English Jr. (D-OK), CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association (NRECA), says that when he was recruited a decade ago, he "assumed that I'd be very active in promoting NRECA's legislative and regulatory agenda. While I do testify occasionally and otherwise stay involved in the policy-making process, I spend most of my time just dealing with the challenges that arise in managing a large organization."

Changing Times?
Professional associations have traditionally been led by an individual from the profession, such as a nurse for the American Nurses Association. Trade associations, on the other hand, often hire a CEO who has knowledge of and an affinity for the industry but is not necessarily an industry insider. Former Representatives Moore, Schroeder, Coyne, English, and LaRocco all are examples of politicians who ended up running trade associations in which their personal interests and substantive expertise were good fits with the organizations.

Association search committees establish CEO selection criteria as diverse as the association world itself. Some want an individual who understands how regulatory decisions are made at a particular agency. Other associations want someone with broader knowledge of American government. Still others put political considerations further down the list.

But in all instances, associations are looking for a strong leader. They want a CEO who is a capable executive, an articulate spokesperson, and a passionate champion. Many former members of Congress — as well as former congressional staffers and executive branch officials — are very well qualified by all of these measures.

Of course, former national legislators carry political baggage. They are, after all, either a Republican or a Democrat (true independents are rare). They undoubtedly made both friends and enemies during their congressional careers — and then there is that one-year prohibition on lobbying their former colleagues.

So does the reported courtship of Representative Tauzin by both Hollywood and the prescription drug makers represent a new interest by the association world in recruiting current or former members of Congress to lead major associations? It's simply too early to tell. However, associations are a vibrant and vital part of the American political system, and where there is a good substantive fit, both an association and a former member of Congress can be quite satisfied.

Author Link
Fred H. Hutchison is vice president of Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations. He also serves as chairman of GWSAE's Editorial Advisory Committee and is a frequent contributor to Executive Update. He can be reached at (202) 551-1440 or

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Reprinted with Permission
This article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Executive Update, published by the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives. It is reprinted here with permission.


  © 2008 Fred H. Hutchison. All Rights Reserved.

Edited on: May 19, 2006