January 15, 2016
A former top adviser to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) has built a lucrative business around a unique asset: his ability to provide access to his old boss. Between 2003 and 2013, John D. “Tripp” Skipper held several positions with Rep. Rogers on both the campaign trail and in his congressional office. Now, he runs his own lobbying firm, the Skipper Group, and much of his work, according to lobbying disclosure reports, involves interacting with Rep. Rogers’s office.
Skipper formed his consulting firm in March 2013, the same month that he received his final paycheck from Rogers’s office, and later registered to lobby on the federal level in July 2014. Since then, he has lobbied Rep. Rogers on behalf of each of his three clients. In fact, Skipper has disclosed lobbying Rep. Rogers’ office in seven of the sixteen lobbying reports he has filed since registering. In four of those reports, Rep. Rogers’s appears to be the only legislative office with whom Skipper met. In others, Skipper reported lobbying other members of Congress from Alabama or the Alabama congressional delegation as a whole, which includes Rep. Rogers.
The pinpoint focus of Skipper’s lobbying efforts suggests that his clients aren’t after expertise on policy issues or his skill in navigating the political process when they hire him. Instead, it appears they primarily want access to Rep. Rogers.
Take, for example, the very first client that the Skipper Group signed up, Alabama-based DESE Research. In the first quarter of 2015, the only lobbying work that Skipper reported doing for DESE was submitting a National Defense Authorization Act budget request worksheet to Rep. Rogers’ office and facilitating “a meeting for Dr. Wally Kirkpatrick, CEO of DESE Research, with Congressman Rogers.” The next quarter, Skipper reported facilitating another meeting between Dr. Kirkpatrick and Rep. Rogers. DESE Research paid the Skipper Group $10,000 each those quarters, part of the $63,000 the company has paid overall.
Skipper’s work on behalf of another client, SpaceX, stands out in terms of how important his access to Rep. Rogers can be. In December 2014, Congress banned the military from buying space launch rockets with Russian-made engines, dealing a blow to longtime contractor United Launch Alliance, whose Atlas V rocket uses a Russian-made engine called the RD-180. With the ban in place, SpaceX had an opportunity to pick up some of the military’s space launch business, pending certification for national security launches.
As the chair of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services, which oversees space exploration, Rep. Rogers is one of the most influential members of Congress on the issue. But SpaceX had an initial disadvantage in the fight for his attention: United Launch Alliance has one of its two manufacturing facilities in his home state of Alabama. A lobbyist with easy access to Rep. Rogers would be a tremendous help.
SpaceX hired Skipper in late October 2014. He quickly went to work communicating with Rep. Rogers’ office about SpaceX’s issues with some of the language “concerning the future of the RD-180” in the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015, the legislation that ultimately contained the ban on Russian-made engines. In March 2015, Rep. Rogers presided over a subcommittee hearing on “Assuring Assured Access to Space” that featured testimony from the presidents of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. According to Skipper’s lobbying disclosure report for the 1st quarter of 2015, he “conveyed SpaceX priorities” to Rep. Rogers’ office regarding the hearing. Since hiring him, SpaceX has paid Skipper $10,000 per quarter, paying his firm $50,000 so far.
It’s unclear exactly what effect Skipper’s work, which is only a small part of a SpaceX’s lobbying push, has had. The company received its certification in May 2015, but no contracts have been awarded yet. In December 2015, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), a United Launch Alliance supporter whose office Skipper contacted on behalf of SpaceX, added language to an omnibus spending bill removing the ban on Russian-made rocket engines.
Still, Skipper’s efforts, which were spelled out in unusual detail in his lobbying reports, provide a rare look into how the revolving door spins. As a former top adviser, Skipper has special access to Rep. Rogers, and his lobbying clients know they can hire him to gain that access. Though it’s widely believed that former members of Congress and their staffers can “cash in on their connections” by becoming lobbyists, Skipper’s description of contacts with his former boss illustrate how trading on past connections can work in practice.