Seminar Summary: The Effects of Revolving Door Laws on Political Selection in the United States

Washington, D.C., USA. Photo by Joshua Sukoff via Unsplash.

By Ananya Agarwal

Public servants worldwide face legal restrictions, to varying degrees, on their ability to leave the public sector to represent private interests for personal gain before the government in which they served. So-called “revolving door laws” often involve constraints on how a former official may interact with government (e.g., whether they can interact with the department or ministry in which they served) and potentially a cooling off period of months or years.

In the United States, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states generally define lobbying as an attempt to influence government action through either written or oral communication on someone else on behalf of someone else for compensation. The purpose of the revolving door laws is to act as a barrier for politicians who, after leaving office, serve private rather than public interests via lobbying positions.

Yet, as with most policies, revolving door restrictions involve tradeoffs. And whereas much of the public discourse, as well as academic research, on revolving door laws has focused on post-office behaviors, these rules may also affect selection into and out of government. For example, restrictions on post-office employment may reduce the pool of candidates for public positions, by reducing the benefits of holding office and may also change the composition of candidates. Additionally, revolving door laws may encourage officials to stay in office longer, by postponing the benefits of departure, which can have ambiguous consequences.

Raymond Fisman, a Core Faculty Member of the Human Capital Initiative at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, and his colleagues Jetson Leder-Luis, Catherine O’Donnell and Silvia Vannutelli examine the consequences of revolving door laws for entry and exit from state-level politics in the US. On February 14, as a part of the Spring 2024 Human Capital Initiative Research Seminar Series, Fisman presented key findings from the forthcoming study, revealing that such laws lead to less candidates choosing to stand for state-level office, and to more uncontested elections, in particular.

The study focused on the consequences of revolving door laws for state-level political selection and lobbying. Fisman and coauthors combined information on the passage of revolving door restrictions with election information, as well as biographical and lobbying data on state-level legislatures. To evaluate the effect of the laws, they used differences-in-differences (DID) methodology, in which they exploited staggered introduction of revolving door laws across states and compared outcomes of legislators serving in states that passed revolving door restrictions relative to outcomes of legislators in states that hadn’t yet passed such laws.

Following the methodology overview, Fisman revealed that their data analysis did confirm that revolving door laws have the basic intended effect of fewer former legislators serving as lobbyists, both in short-term and long-term. Moreover, the results showed fewer new candidates entering politics and fewer incumbents exiting politics. Overall, the effect of these laws is to increase the number of uncontested elections, meaning that more candidates run unopposed. 

Fisman noted that there are multiple factors that could affect how politicians respond to revolving door restrictions – the research team plans to examine how their results depend on politicians’ education levels, pre-office occupations, housing, wealth and legislative productivity. They also plan to take a deeper look at their post-legislative activities.

Overall, Fisman and colleagues’ research is a step forward in understanding the short- and long-term effects of revolving door laws on political selection in the US. By creating an avenue to measure the effects of the laws, their work has the potential to inspire the creation of frameworks to better improve these laws.


Ananya Agarwal is a Bachelor of Science Candidate in Economics and Mathematics at Boston University and a Research Assistant with the Boston University Global Development Policy Center.

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