The 12-member congressional supercommittee picked to trim $1.5 trillion from the federal budget will undoubtedly be listening to hundreds of viewpoints on where to cut back. But many of the voices chiming in could be the members' current or former staffers who have close ties to the lobbying world.
More than 100 former staffers of the bipartisan, bicameral supercommittee members have gone to work for entities that lobby Congress, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
And while it is unclear now which staff members the six Republicans and six Democrats will choose to assist them in the work of cutting the deficit, about a dozen former lobbyists are currently employed in key positions, the group has found.
The legislation that created the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction authorizes the committee co-chairmen to appoint and set salaries for staff according to guidelines for Senate employees and to jointly hire a staff director.
As with any issue brought before Congress, the staff members could prove integral to the resulting recommendations and legislation as they are often called upon to sit in on meetings and draft position papers. Watchdog groups fret that lobbyists or people with close ties to specific industries will have too much influence on the process. But other experts say they could bring valuable experience to the supercommittee.
Mark Rom, an associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University, said having former lobbyists on staff could prove helpful.
"They are going to get great advice from staffers who have gone through the revolving door," Rom said.
These staffers have working relationships with the groups that are trying to sway Congress, Lee Drutman, a visiting professor of the University of California's Washington Center said.
"If they have ties to lobbying that they worked with in the past, they understand what those companies and interests want," Drutman said. It is because of that relationship, he said, that a staffer might know "here's what they are going to ask for and here's really what they'll settle for."
But at the same time those ties make watchdog groups very anxious.
Michael Beckel, the spokesman for Center for Responsive Politics, said "access is a big part of the game."
"Everybody right now is paying attention to this group of 12 lawmakers. They have the power to cut $1.5 trillion and are going to impact a lot of people's bottom lines, and everyone is mobilizing to keep their pet projects off the chopping block," he said.
"The lobbying bonanza that will exist around the supercommittee is going to be the hottest ticket in town during the next several months," Beckel continued. "The big areas that are likely to see steep cuts are likely to be mobilizing their resources to keep certain programs from being cut or to water down any potential impact the decisions that these 12 lawmakers are going to have to make."
Beckel said that energy and natural resources interests have given $8.9 million in campaign contributions to the 12 lawmakers through the years -- about $5.1 million from political action committees and $3.7 million from individuals.
Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, another watchdog group, said, "People who come back [to Capitol Hill] from K Street are going to be very solicitous of other lobbyists, much more receptive to listen to the arguments of K Street and special interests -- much more attuned and much more likely to listen to what they are pushing -- in part because they may be their future employers."
"They've got about two months to figure out what they are doing from the time they start meeting to the time they come up with a plan," Allison added. "They are going to have ideas coming at them from all sides and having someone who is trusted, someone who is a known quantity can't be overrated."
Far more worrying, Allison said, is that "we won't see campaign contributions or lobbying reports for any of these guys until January 15," which will be after the work of the committee is done.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has two former lobbyists working on his committee. Staff director Gary Andres most recently worked for Dutko Worldwide, which lists among its clients Aspect Energy LLC, Duke Energy Corp., PDVSA USA Inc., NV Energy Inc., the National Ground Water Association, the In Situ Oil Sands Alliance and Trout Unlimited.
The Energy and Commerce Committee's general counsel, James Barnette, worked for three lobbying firms most recently with Steptoe & Johnson, whose clients included Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, Rio Tinto London Ltd. and Weyerhaeuser Co. Before joining the lobbying groups, Barnette had an earlier stint on the Energy and Commerce Committee between 1995 and 2005.
Another Upton staffer is Howard Cohen, who is listed as a special assistant to the chairman. Cohen joined Upton in 2011 after working as a lobbyist for health care companies.
Upton was picked along with Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) to represent the House on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which must present its recommendations by Thanksgiving.
Kirsten Mork serves as legislative director for Hensarling, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee. In 2008, Mork returned to the Hill, leaving Federal Strategy Group, which lists air transport corporation AMR Corp. and Verizon Communications as clients.
Three former lobbyists work on the House Ways and Means Committee, which is led by Camp. Republican chief tax counsel Jonathan Traub worked for three years for the Security Industry and Financial Markets Association. Staff director George Callas lobbied for KPMG LLP, which lists among its clients Marathon Oil, and chief counsel David Olander worked for Baker & Hostetler, a powerhouse law firm.
On the Democratic side, Van Hollen, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, is the only supercommittee panelist to employ a former lobbyist. Karen Robb serves as chief counsel on the Budget Committee and as his chief of staff. But not listed in the Center for Responsive Politics data is Dave Grimaldi, who has worked as a senior counsel to Clyburn since 2009 and before that he worked as a lobbyist for Raben Group.
On the Senate side, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) were picked to serve on the committee, with Murray serving as co-chairwoman.
Portman's chief of staff Robert Lehman joined Squire, Sanders & Dempsey as a principal in 2007, while Toomey's chief of staff Christopher Gahan worked for Latham & Watkins in 2004.
Drutman, the University of California professor, said that despite these close ties, panelists and their former staffers are aware of the intense scrutiny the supercommittee will be under and may not try to influence the process unduly.
"Everybody who is a lobbyist cares about the relationships they have in Washington so they don't want to put people in too uncomfortable positions, but they are going to make asks," he said.
That is not to say that the firms do not benefit from their connections.
Drutman said the odds are likely that the lobbying from a former staffer will be "more effective and better heard case if they know how that office works and if they have relationships with that office."
Dozens of ex-Senate staffers lobbying
Of the House Republicans, Camp has the most former employees working for lobbying entities. A total of eight former Camp staffers have gone into the private sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, including Dena Battle, who worked for Camp as a legislative director. Battle now is a principal at Capitol Counsel, whose clients include the American Petroleum Institute, Edison Electric Institute and Xcel Energy.
Four former Upton staffers and three former Hensarling staffers now work for entities that seek to influence Congress.
Among the Democratic House members with K Street ties, Van Hollen has three former staffers and Clyburn has seven former staffers who worked for him either in his congressional office or when he was House majority whip, including AJ Jones, who is now a principal at Podesta Group. The firm's clients include BP PLC, the U.S. Green Building Council and Coeur D'Alene Mines.
Among Senate members of the supercommittee, the Democrats alone have more than 100 former staffers working for lobbying entities.
Thirty-nine names pop up for staffers who have worked for Kerry either in his Senate office or on his presidential campaign. Several of the former staffers worked for Kerry in both capacities. Among those is David Leiter, who is president of ML Strategies. His company does work for many energy groups including Exxon Mobil Corp., Solar Trust of America, Energy 5.0 and the Coalition for Clean & Renewable Energy.
Thirty-seven former Baucus staffers have ties to lobbying companies, including David Castagnetti, who is now a lobbyist for Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, whose clients include Energy Future Holdings Corp., Exelon, Clean Energy Fuel Corp. and the Edison Electric Institute.
Twenty former staffers for Murray have worked for lobbying firms. One is Rick Desimone, who worked for Murray between 1999 and 2007. He now works for McBee Strategic Consulting, which lists numerous energy and air transportation companies among its clients.
On the Republican side, 11 former staffers for Kyl have ties to lobbying industries including Christine "Christy" Clark, who worked for Kyl as a foreign policy adviser. She is now a principal at Podesta Group.
Since 2005, Barbara Pate has worked for Davis & Harman, whose portfolio includes U.S. Sugar Corp., NextEra Energy and the American Horse Council. Before joining the firm she worked for Portman for 10 years.
Brian Wild, who is also a lobbyist for Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, worked for Toomey from 2001 to 2004.
But that is not to say that all of these former staffers lobby on behalf of energy companies. For instance, Francis Grab, who worked for Becerra, now works at Ernst & Young, advising clients on tax, budget and international trade issues; but the company represents a variety of clients including Exxon Mobil, the National Hydropower Association, the National Alliance of Forest Owners and the Nature Conservancy.
Georgetown's Rom said he is less concerned about the lobbying that the supercommittee members will be exposed to because "everything this committee does is going to be watched very, very intensely. The idea that the committee will be able to slip something in -- that's not going to happen."