WASHINGTON — Even now, nearly a decade after voters in his San Fernando Valley district abruptly ended his 20-year congressional career, James C. Corman still wears his regret on his well-tailored sleeve.
"It's just awful to be doing something you love and you think you do reasonably well, and it's all gone in one election and you can't do anything about it," Corman recalled recently over breakfast amid the leather furnishings and cherry walls of the sumptuous office where he works as a Washington lobbyist. "It's gone."
He would mount an autumnal comeback in a minute if he could regain the coveted seniority that made him a leading Democratic advocate for the poor and disadvantaged on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, which crafts national tax legislation.
"He's probably one of the few people I know who isn't happier in private life than he was in public life," said Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), a former colleague and close friend of Corman's. "He's a bleeding heart; he's an idealist."
But make no mistake: Corman, 68, has found there is life after Congress since Republican Bobbi Fiedler rode the crest of the Valley's anti-school-busing movement in 1980 to oust him by a mere 752 votes out of 153,770 cast.
The past 8 1/2 years as a successful Capitol Hill lobbyist have provided the courtly lawyer with the income and time to do things with his youthful second family that a congressional schedule and salary would have vetoed.
"You ask Jim what time it is and he'll say, 'Let me tell you about Adam and Brian,' " Jacobs said, referring to Corman's sons, ages 10 and 9. "I've never seen a more devoted father."
Bereft of the power to shape public policy, Corman has been blessed with a new life of private prerogatives as his prime focus moved from the House to the home. But, dapper in monogrammed shirts, leather suspenders and wing-tipped shoes, the white-haired former resident of Van Nuys still frequents the Capitol's marble halls.
Like more than 80 former House members, Corman has cashed in on his contacts and knowledge of the institution and its issues, particularly often arcane tax matters handled by the Ways and Means Committee, on which he was the fourth-ranking member. He has made as much as $300,000 a year, five times his highest salary as a lawmaker (House pay is now $89,500 a year).
His lobbying business, Corman Law Offices, includes such clients as MCA; Tropicana Energy, a Texas-based ethanol manufacturer; shopping center magnate Guilford Glazer; the U. S. League of Savings Institutions, and the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. He has one partner, William Kirk, a Georgetown Law School graduate and ex-counsel to the Ways and Means public assistance and unemployment subcommittee that Corman headed.
Their top-paying client is the National Structured Settlements Trade Assn., whose members negotiate with plaintiffs and defendants in personal-injury cases to stretch out payments through tax-free annuities or government bonds. They support laws permitting legal cases to be settled this way rather than requiring a lump-sum settlement.
Corman maintains that it is good public policy because victims are prevented from dissipating huge one-shot payments and then turning to the government for public assistance. But periodically he must beat back efforts by the Department of the Treasury, which is displeased about the loss of tax revenue from lump-sum payments, to change the law.
Corman and Kirk recently agreed to merge Jan. 1 with Silverstein & Mullens, a prominent Washington tax law firm. This will give the two partners additional support services and potentially higher income. Otherwise, Corman said, "it will not change the nature of what I do."
Just as he was respected for his integrity, intelligence and diligence as a legislator, Corman is widely regarded as a savvy, well-prepared and unfailingly gracious lobbyist.
"I don't think he's done anything to call that earlier reputation into question," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "I have never heard anyone say, 'Look what this hypocrite's doing' or that he's sold his soul for something or traded his access for something that someone thought was appalling."
Such actions by others have prompted controversy on Capitol Hill over the so-called alumni lobby. House ethics rules impose virtually no restrictions on lobbying by former members (the Senate prohibits its ex-members from lobbying senators and aides for one year). Executive branch employees face much tougher revolving-door restrictions.
Ex-members have access that other lobbyists do not enjoy. They can roam the House floor, although they are forbidden from lobbying there, and can work out in the House gym.