Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and head of the White House Office of Management and Budget (and possibly President Donald Trump's next chief of staff), landed in hot water this week for saying, on camera and in front of an audience, that lawmakers are more likely to listen to lobbyists who have made political contributions.
It is true, of course, that lawmakers are more likely to listen to lobbyists who have made political contributions. If it weren't, one would be left to wonder exactly why so many unions, corporations, and interest groups cut so many massive checks to members of Congress every two years.
Specifically, what Mulvaney said—referring back to his time as a member of Congress, while speaking to a gathering of bankers in Washington, D.C.—was: "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."
Those 36 words are being treated as proof positive that Mulvaney is bought and paid for by whichever powerful special interest was able to write the check with the most zeroes on them. The swamp has won. The game is rigged. Democrats in Congress have called for Mulvaney's resignation, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who designed the all-powerful financial regulatory post Mulvaney now heads, has said those remarks are proof the Trump administration is the "most corrupt" in American history.
Warren might be right—the president playing golf and receiving foreign dignitaries at country clubs and resorts that he personally owns is certainly unprecendented—but that conclusion has little, if anything, to do with Mulvaney's admission of something that everyone who pays attention to politics already knows.
In fact, Mulvaney's comments are perfectly in line with his boss' realpolitik views on the relationship between money and political power. Remember when then-candidate Donald Trump was asked during the GOP primary debates about his history of donations to Bill and Hillary Clinton? That's a cardinal sin in the GOP, and it was meant to expose Trump as a phony Republican. But Trump shrugged and gave a honest answer. "I give to everybody," he said. "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." And that's not the only time Trump has said something like that.
That moment during the primaries was treated, briefly, as if it should somehow disqualify Trump from the campaign. As if a requirement for being president is an implicit agreement to go along with the lies that we've all agreed to tell ourselves about modern American politics. The idea that campaign contributions don't influence policymaking belongs right up there with "entitlements are solvent for the long-term, America has achievable foreign policy goals in the Middle East, and every vote matters." In fact, some of the most significant friction between Trump and the Washington establishment has been over the lies that the president sometimes refuses to tell, rather than all the obvious ones that he does.
Maybe there's some value to maintaining this illusion, as Jonathan Chait suggests. "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," Chait writes. "The Trump administration is not even bothering to put up a façade."
But wasn't that more-or-less the best argument for voting for Trump? He's brash, chaotic, and in over his head, but lots of Americans went to the polls and said they preferred that to Hillary Clinton, an anthropomorphic façade in a pantsuit.
More to the point: if our politics have become corrupted by a pay-to-play mentality, isn't it better for everyone to have it out in the open? That's the only way it will change.
That's why we should not regard Mulvaney's remarks as just another gaffe, or another case of a Trump administration official "saying the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet." If Mulvaney is being truthful about how members of Congress view their relationship to deep-pocketed donors—and there's no reason to believe he was lying—that doesn't mean there's no cause for concern. By one count, $6.5 billion was spent on the presidential and congressional elections in 2016, shattering the previous record of $6 billion that was set in 2012 (which, in turn, broke the record of $5.3 billion set in 2008, and so on and so forth). This is not going to stop, even though it would seem like every dollar spent getting someone elected to public office could be put to better use by doing almost literally anything else with it.
Yet, the money keeps flowing. Which can only mean one thing: All that spending is paying off in some way. Politically powerfully special interests don't get to be that way by wasting their resources, after all.
What to do about this? One option might be to make more rules governing money in politics. But the people making those rules will be the very same individuals already compromised by the current system. More practically, the current Supreme Court seems unlikely to reverse the Citizens United ruling—and even if it did, campaign finance rules merely redirect political rent-seeking to other channels.
That rules and structure can't keep money from influencing politics is most obviously true, ironically enough, in the very agency that Mulvaney now runs. The CFPB was designed to be completely insulated from the political process. It doesn't even get its budget from Congress, as it is funded directly from the Federal Reserve. That would keep banking special interests from buying off the lawmakers who control the purse strings, or so it was thought. Those rules made the CFPB unaccountable to Congress, but they obviously have not shielded the agency from political influence—something even Warren would have to admit now.
The only way to get money out of politics is to get politics out of money. That's easier said than done, of course, but unwinding the federal government's ability to influence corporate balance sheets is the only surefire way to keep those corporations from trying to use the government to do exactly that. If you're upset about Mulvaney's remarks this week, and you believe he is telling the truth about government for, by, and of the lobbyists "who gave us money," then the only solution is less powerful government.
When politicians no longer have the ability to make or break a business, they will spend their money trying to influence the people who do: consumers.