Sure, Cantor suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of college professor Dave Brat, but now he’s freed up to make some serious money. Who needs all those rules and restrictions? The inside-the-beltway free market awaits.
The Cantor sweepstakes has become a source of fascination within the backslapping carousel of the capital. “He’s got a lot of private-sector friends he has done favors for,” says Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who now works for Deloitte & Touche. “I think it would be easy for him to become Eric Cantor Inc. and make a few million dollars a year.” After all, Cantor, whose net worth is already listed between $4.4 million and $14.3 million, will soon be unburdened by pesky House ethics and disclosures and restrictions. Given his contacts and pedigree, he could one day eclipse the Tauzin Line, which is named for the former Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin, who made $11.6 million as a pharmaceutical lobbyist in 2010. Even if he follows the more modest route of Dick Gephardt, the former House majority leader, he’ll still do O.K. Gephardt, who played a convincing working-class hero during his two Democratic presidential campaigns, now runs a consulting firm that made $4.8 million in lobbying income alone last year.
There was a time, it’s worth remembering, when outgoing public officials would return to their farms, stores, law firms, medical practices or whatever quaint things the founders envisioned our citizen leaders doing after their public lives ended. In the 1970s, Davis worked for two Nebraska senators, Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska, each of whom wound up living out his days in the Cornhusker State. “You did not have the lobbying class that you have today,” Davis told me. In 1974, according to The Atlantic, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Now half of all senators and 42 percent of representatives enter the field. And those numbers don’t include our former leaders who call themselves “policy advisers,” consultants or strategists. (“Unregistered lobbyists” is how they are known, winkingly, around town.) Or the fact that more than half the members of Congress — who tend to be well educated, well raised and well married to begin with — are already millionaires.
What’s notable is how naturally D.C. commentators have accepted the “monetization” of Cantor’s “contribution.” In an article in CQ Roll Call, Julian Ha, a headhunter at Heidrick & Struggles, urged Cantor’s staff members to “call in the chits they’ve been accumulating and cash them in.” In a National Journal article headlined “Eric Cantor’s Loss Could Be the Best Thing That’s Happened to Him,” one former Republican Capitol Hill aide and current lobbyist earnestly wondered, “The question is how rich does Eric Cantor want to be.” Chris Jones, an executive-search specialist, guessed that the answer was very, very rich. He suggested to Time that Cantor would move to New York and join a major investment bank. “I don’t think he’ll be a standard lobbyist at a law firm,” Jones said. “I think he’ll go big. . . . I think he’s a major power player.”
Therein lies the uncomfortable reality of our gilded capital. Cantor’s loss was widely attributed to his growing “out of touch” with his Richmond-area constituents — he had become too steeped in Washington’s machinations, too cuddled up with Wall Street, too beholden to the entrenched insider’s world. An oft-quoted factoid, courtesy of Open Secrets, is that Cantor’s campaign spent more money at Bobby Van’s steakhouses ($124,177) than David Brat, his opponent, did on his entire campaign ($122,792). Yet those qualities are precisely what now make him such a prized recruit in his next career. As Brat presciently noted on the campaign trail, “All the investment banks up in New York and Washington, whatever. . . . Instead of going to jail, where’d they go? They went on to Eric’s Rolodex.”