Amazon Has Become a Prime Revolving-Door Destination in Washington

“Its interests probably transverse the US government more than any other company.”

Mother Jones illustration; Getty

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Everything about Amazon is big. It’s the second-biggest retailer in the world. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, possesses the biggest fortune in the world. And the company has developed a big revolving door in Washington through which government officials and employees whisk and land in well-paying jobs at Amazon, which has a big list of interests it seeks to protect and advance in the nation’s capital.

Mother Jones investigation has identified at least 247 US government officials and employees—with about 150 hailing from the intelligence, cybersecurity, law enforcement, and military fields—who were hired by Amazon in the past 10 years or so. About 200 of them have been retained by the fast-growing company since the start of 2017. This list is not comprehensive and represents what is likely only a portion of federal employees who left government service for Amazon. It was compiled by searching LinkedIn and locating people who, according to their profiles, had worked in the federal government directly before moving to Amazon; it relies on information provided by the platform’s users. There are no public records that track all the US officials and employees hired by Amazon or other firms.

It is not uncommon for prominent firms to vacuum up government officials who can lobby their former agencies, win and manage lucrative government contracts, offer strategic or legal advice, or perform other services. Boeing, Raytheon, and other military contractors hire loads of people from the Defense Department and the armed services. (Most of the senior military officials—generals, admirals, and others—who leave the Pentagon for the private sector do become lobbyists for military firms.) Consulting firms, including McKinsey & Company, frequently recruit former US officials.

Given that Amazon hired over 400,000 employees to increase its workforce to more than 1.2 million in the first 10 months of last year, the recruitment of hundreds of former federal officials and employees is a small slice of its workforce expansion. Many of these Amazon hires were undoubtedly brought aboard for their technical know-how and work in positions in which they do not interact with the government. And there is nothing illegal about any of this (though there are limited restrictions on the sort of lobbying activities certain senior government officials can conduct after they land in a corporate suite). But good government groups have long complained about the ever-spinning revolving door between public service and private companies and the possible impacts on government regulatory decision making and contracting. Not only can corporations use such hires to navigate and influence government actions; if a government official has the possibility of obtaining a lucrative position at a corporation, this may effect how he or she handles matters related to that company. 

“If you combine the quantity and breadth of their hires, Amazon may have more of a revolving door than any other American company now,” says Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “There is almost no department of the US government Amazon is not interested in.” Timothy LaPira, a professor of political science and revolving-door expert at James Madison University, points out that Amazon wants people with government experience who can help the company understand the regulatory landscape and how to adapt to it: “Amazon is probably not buying access so much as they’re buying the expertise of what happens behind closed doors.”

Amazon declined to comment for this story. 

The roster of Amazon hires spans the US government. The list includes an undersecretary for the Transportation Department, a Pentagon deputy general counsel, a US Treasury economist, a Federal Trade Commission associate general counsel, a Food and Drug Administration cybersecurity operations director, a US Trade Representative senior director, a National Economic Council senior director for trade policy, a former US ambassador to the World Trade Organization, a Justice Department senior counsel in the computer crime and intellectual property section, a National Transportation Safety Board public affairs director, a General Services Administration acting assistant commissioner, a Veterans Administration senior program manager, a Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services senior adviser for information technology, and an Office of Management and Budget chief acquisition officer. 

There are many from the military and national security agencies: a State Department internet policy adviser, a Department of Homeland Security cyberthreat intelligence analyst, a National Security Council director for space policy, a US Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, an FBI assistant director, a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency talent acquisition manager, a National Security Agency network analysis chief, a US Navy cryptologic warfare officer, a Defense Intelligence Agency operations officer, a senior official at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a Defense Contract Audit Agency auditor, an Office of the Director of National Intelligence senior plans officer, and a CIA East Africa Branch chief. (According to the Intercept, Amazon has in recent years hired more than 20 former FBI agents for its global security center in Arizona.)

“Amazon is so vast and vaster in its ambitions,” says Hauser. “Its interests probably transverse the US government more than any other company.” Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, notes, “There have been multinational corporations that have wielded clout in DC—AT&T, Boeing—but they are hardly comparable to the tech giants, including Amazon.”

Not surprisingly, Amazon has snapped up Capitol Hill veterans. Its payroll in recent years has expanded with staffers for many past and present lawmakers: Sens. Patty Murray, Dianne Feinstein, Cory Booker,  Jeanne Shaheen, Jon Kyl, Thom Tillis, Tom Cotton, Tim Scott, John Kerry, David Vitter, Fritz Hollings, George Allen, and Orrin Hatch; and Reps. Jimmy Duncan, Darrell Issa, Todd Rokita, John Shadegg, Peter Welch, Mario Díaz-Balart, Suzan DelBene, Lloyd Doggett, Will Hurd, Vernon Ehlers, and G.K. Butterfield. The megacompany has also grabbed staff members of various congressional committees, including the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, the House Rules Committee, and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

One prominent example: In 2018, Lartease Tiffith, a senior counsel for then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), jumped to Amazon to become an in-house lobbyist and senior manager for privacy, security, and consumer protection. Previously, Tiffith had worked for Feinstein and the Justice Department.

In 2020, Amazon spent $18.7 million on Washington lobbying—about a $2 million increase from the previous year—and assembled an influence-swaying army of 20 different lobbying firms and 118 individual lobbyists, which included 41 in-house lobbyists. One member of this force was veteran lobbyist Jeff Ricchetti, the brother of Steve Ricchetti, a counselor to President Joe Biden. Amazon signed a contract with Jeff Ricchetti a week after Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election. 

Perhaps the most noticed move from DC politics to Amazon came in 2015 when Jay Carney, a onetime journalist who had been President Barack Obama’s press secretary, joined the firm as its senior vice president of global corporate affairs—Amazon’s top person in Washington. (Before working for Obama, Carney was communications director for then–Vice President Biden.) As Business Insider reported, Carney “oversees public policy and communications and is a member of Amazon’s elite ‘S-team,’ a group of 23 of the company’s most senior employees that helps shape culture and policy at Amazon.” He reports directly to Bezos.

Amazon has grown substantially in recent years to become a company like no other in the United States. It has a wide array of interests that stretch across the entire landscape of the US government and that mostly fall within two fundamental areas: regulation and contracts. The firm, the second-largest employer in the United States (after Walmart), has long been criticized for its workplace conditions and is battling a much-watched union organizing effort in Alabama. (So it would deeply care about the Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the National Labor Relations Board.) It owns Whole Foods. (Cue the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.) It faces international regulatory challenges. (Keep an eye on the USTR, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.) It has developed one of the largest trucking and delivery systems in the nation. (Watch the Department of Transportation.) Cyber-commerce and cybersecurity are top concerns. (Track the National Security Agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the FBI.) And with its Prime streaming service, there’s telecommunications, net neutrality, and broadband issues. (That means the Federal Communications Commission.) Intellectual property, privacy, Section 230, tax regulations, trade policy, mail delivery, infrastructure, energy, and sustainability—so many matters critical to Amazon are overseen by one or multiple government entities.

And then there’s antitrust. As one of the biggest companies on the planet, Amazon needs to fret about regulators and officials at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission who could be concerned about its dominance in multiple markets and its possible use of monopolistic predatory pricing. Scott Fitzgerald, who worked for a dozen years in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, became a corporate counsel for the company last year. Two years earlier, Bryson Bachman, a senior attorney in the antitrust division, was hired as a senior corporate counsel. Before working at the Justice Department, Bachman served as chief counsel to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on the Senate’s Antitrust Subcommittee. In recent years, Amazon has hired at least three other veterans of the Justice Department’s antitrust division and five FTC officials. 

“Amazon especially needs people these days who bring technical expertise the company needs in its battles with the government over antitrust and privacy, as Washington looks at tech regulation,” Krumholz says, “and money is hardly an issue for Amazon.”

Simultaneously, the US government has become an important source of revenue for Amazon, primarily though Amazon Web Services, which sells cloud-based services. AWS pitches itself on its website as a crucial supplier for the government: “The AWS Cloud provides secure, scalable, and cost-efficient solutions to support the unique requirements and missions of the US federal government. Our cloud services can be employed to meet mandates, reduce costs, drive efficiencies, and increase innovation across civilian agencies, intelligence community, and the Department of Defense.” That site lists contracts with the FAA, the IRS, the Census, the Army, DHS, GSA, NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Social Security Administration, the Department of the Interior, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and other government agencies. In 2014, AWS developed a computing cloud for the CIA designed to be used by all 17 agencies of the intelligence community. The price tag: $600 million. In November, US immigration and Customs Enforcement noted its intent to pay $100 million to AWS and Microsoft for cloud services. AWS sought a $10 billion megacloud computing contract with the Defense Department that was eventually awarded to Microsoft. But that contract has been impeded by a lawsuit filed in 2019 by Amazon, which accused then-President Donald Trump of intervening against AWS due to his animosity toward Bezos, who owns the Washington Post. (Bezos also owns Blue Origin, a rocket company, which has plans to compete for US government contracts.)

Amazon’s net sales in 2020 were $386 billion—up 38 percent over the previous year—with AWS accounting for $45 billion of that. AWS was responsible for about 60 percent of the company’s operating profits last year. The head of AWS, Andy Jassy, has been tapped by Bezos to succeed him as CEO later this year. With the federal government a major customer, AWS could use former government officials to sell its wares to government agencies. And with Washington so central to Amazon, the company is building its HQ2—its second headquarters—in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac from the nation’s capital. In 2016, Bezos bought a swanky, 27,000-square-foot mansion in Washington. 

Amazon’s expanding revolving door is a sign of how the firm has grown and how it has become more involved with decisions and policies made across the US government. As Krumholz observes, “There is a lack of scrutiny and transparency in this area. And there is nothing more MEGO—my eyes glaze over—than, say, cloud services. There is far more outcry over where Amazon puts their headquarters or what their delivery times are. But this is big, big money, and inside baseball. The government agencies know how important it is. Amazon knows how important it is. Everyday Americans don’t.”

LaPira notes that government experience is increasingly valuable for Amazon as it has become a corporate behemoth and the target of regulatory and antitrust concerns. The company, he says, is likely willing to pay a premium for it: “From a survival perspective, we would expect Amazon to pull out all the stops…They have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to hire every former government official they can find.”

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"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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