WASHINGTON: During the past year, and during the presidential campaign, we heard a lot of rhetorical attacks upon Washington as a “swamp,” offering declarations about cleaning it up. The fact is, however, that Washington is working the way members of Congress, like former Representative Mick Mulvaney, want it to be. Those special interests and lobbyists which finance the campaigns of both political parties are largely in control of the political agenda.
Every now and then a political leader slips and admits that this is the case.
Congressional Quid Pro Quo
Consider the quid pro quo rule of former South Carolina Congressman Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney is now director of the Office of Management and Budget, as well as interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). In April of this year, Mulvaney told a group of bankers he had a specific litmus test for lobbyists.
Mulvaney would not meet those who did not make campaign contributions to him, and he might meet those who did.
Mr. Mulvaney told the American Bankers Association (ABA):
“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money I might talk to you.”
The ABA is one of the largest and most powerful financial industry lobbying groups. During its annual conference in Washington, industry executives often descend on Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers about their issues. At the present time, the industry is focused on pushing for legislation that would roll back some regulations put in place after the global financial crisis.
Lawmakers “will never know as much about your industry as you do,” Mulvaney told the audience,
“They will never know as much about your issues as you do. And they will not know that it is as important to you as it is until you tell them.”
Mick Mulvaney and his present-day conflict of interests
While in the House, Mulvaney received contributions from groups that now have an interest in his leadership of the CFPB. This has been a subject of complaint by some business groups. The financial industry, including Bank of America was consistently among his largest benefactors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. Bank of America contributed $32,500 between 2009 and 2016, according to the group.
President Trump understands the system. He has said that,
“As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
He told The Wall Street Journal in 2015: “As a businessman, I need that.”
Later that year, he said,
“I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”
To many observers, the Mulvaney statement about lobbyists was more an embrace of our present system, in which special interests of various kinds often defeat the larger public interests, than a simple statement about the way things work in Washington.
“Mulvaney didn’t offer this as a sad concession to reality but an actual principle of governance he had personally abided,” notes New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait. “People in government might have always given their donors more influence over their decisions, but they at least pretended that was not the case in public.”
Politico editor Timothy Noah said of Mulvaney’s declaration,
“I’ve never before seen a former member describe Congress so explicitly as an extortion racket.”
Our democracy to lose
Democratic societies have been rare in history, and have often died at their own hand. A more serious threat to our long-term freedom does not come from ISIS, North Korea, Iran, or any other foreign adversary. It comes from letting our carefully designed constitutional system die from within.
This has been the prediction of many historians. Thomas Babbington Macaulay, writing in 1857, lamented,
“I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous…Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish, or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government, and liberty would perish.”
Looking to America, Macaulay declared:
“Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reigns of government with a strong hand, or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the 20th century as the Roman Empire was in the Fifth, with this difference, that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your institutions.”
Lobbyists influence on Washington’s power and the free market
The concentration of power in Washington, particular interference in the working of the free market, is always a fear of advocates of a free society.
Professor Milton Friedman writes,
“The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of…concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated…a system of checks and balances. By removing the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, the market eliminates the source of coercive power. It enables economic strength to be a check to political, power rather than a reinforcement.”
The special interests who reward members of Congress for advancing their agenda are not Republicans or Democrats, but observe that both parties are eager to do their bidding for a price.
An assault on Free Trade, the rise of Crony Capitalism
Rather than embracing genuine free enterprise, we see an assault on free trade and a system of “crony capitalism,” which rewards campaign contributors with subsidies and tax breaks.
If this system has been properly characterized as a “swamp,” it does not seem to be one which either party is prepared to abandon.
It used to be said that when used car dealers named “Honest John” advertised their goods, citizens should make sure their wallets were secure. The same is true of those who, knee deep in the muck, talk of “draining the swamp.”
As Mick Mulvaney told us, money talks in Washington and the public interest has an increasingly difficult time breaking through. This was not the system the Founding Fathers established but, for better or worse, it is the one we have now.
Unfortunately for Americans, both political parties have been co-conspirators in creating it.