Lobbying

Mick Mulvaney Says What Everyone Already Knew: Lobbyists Gain Access to Politicians by Making Donations

The only way to get money out of politics is to get politics out of money.

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Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

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.

NEXT: Stormy Daniels Lawsuit Sees Michael Cohen Taking the Fifth and Trump's Lawyers Heading Back to Court: Reason Roundup

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  1. The people handing out this money are supposedly those horrible greedy capitalist Gordon Gecko types, but it never seems to occur to anybody that such people won’t give $100,000 to somebody for nothing. They’re expecting something in return, and the politicians they’re giving it to have the power to give it to them. Increasing the power of the politicians is NOT the way to solve this problem.

    But that’s what the progressive dipshits will call for, isn’t it?

    1. You don’t see the whole picture: the Emperor and his swamp ARE PROGRESSIVES.

      Mulvaney is yet another iteration of the chasm between the draining the swamp rhetoric and the doubling down on the swamp reality that is the Trump administration.

      1. It must be why the actual progressives are mad that the Trump is draining some of the swamp.

        People always get mad when other people do exactly what they want to happen.

        1. Trump is the epitome of a swamp creature, you idiot.

          from the Goldman toadies to the energy whores to the protectionist assholes he has them all.

          1. If that were true then why have the actual swamp creatures lost their mind to get rid of Trump?

            That is the evidence that Trump is NOT like them.

          2. I would have discussed how you are an idiot, but some things about you are just a given.

      2. I’m not sure why you think that I don’t regard Trump et al as progressives. But Trump’s opponents will point to incidents like this and claim that it “proves” the need for bigger government.

        1. Okay, on that score, we agree.

    2. Oh, come on. The problem is that the government is controlled by the corporations, and the only way to solve the problem is to make the government so powerful that it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it.

      1. You forgot to point out that when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it. And when that more powerful government is still controlled by the corporations, the solution is to give it more power so it can control the corporations that control it.

      2. Much simpler to solve this problem by making corporations so weak they can do nothing politically, and individual citizens more powerful at all levels of government.

    3. Since there’s no way a single person can respond to over 600k people, all members of congress put filters in place. But the lobbyists are there because congress accrued too much power for itself with the aid and comfort of the judiciary. There are a host of decisions that add up to today’s problems, starting around the time of Wickard v Filburn. Our commerce clause is no longer a promotional tool, but one of hamhanded economic strangulation – stretched to such limits that maoism is just a few short steps away. That’s how Elizabeth Warren finds herself waiting in the wings.

  2. You want to sell access respectably? Set up a charitable foundation, a-hole.

    1. Excuse me, but you misspelled “repeal the first amendment.”

      1. “Fighting words” and “incitement to riot” and “disclosing troop movements” and “commercial speech” and “the constitution is not a suicide pact” and “hate speech” have already done that.

        1. Naw. The 1st Amendment is fine.

        2. No US Federal court at any level has recognized a “hate speech” exemption to the first amendment.

  3. I stand with Pocahontas!

    1. It’s “Fauxcahontas”. Trump ruined that insult. Replacing “Fauxcahontas” with “Pocahontas” is not creative. It’s not original. SAD

  4. Proggie-dalek: PURIFY, PURIFY, PURIFY

  5. When you concentrate your manure in one pile (federal government loaded with cash) and don’t pay much attention to it (we idiotic voters), it attracts flies and vermin (lobbyists and rent seekers).

    Solution: make the pile smaller and keep an eye on it–the vermin go away.

    1. Better yet: eliminate the pile.

    2. Let it do what piles of manure, unattended, do ? ignite from the heat of decomposition.

      1. It appears to be happening now. The GOP has operated for about a decade with no discernable philosophy of governance, and the dems have moved so far left they can barely sell their propaganda to their own faithful anymore. There already is a smoldering fire… the question is, will the libertarian party find traction? Will a brand new party emerge? Or, will the evil duo just go full frontal and form a uniparty that is 100% progressive.

  6. Limit donations that political officials can accept to $5 per person or something low.

    This way, it does not infringe on the First Amendment right since it does not limit how much people can give only how much a government job (political position) can accept. Its also lessens the likelihood that these politicians will get rich off their political office.

    1. The problem is campaign contributions. Candidates don’t necessarily hold office at the time they are accepting campaign contributions.

      The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that even if limits on campaign contributions are constitutional, limits on candidates spending money out of their own pockets are not.

      No, limiting campaign contributions will only get you more candidates like Trump. If the moneyed interests can’t buy politicians through campaign contributions, they will simply end up running for office themselves.

      1. I said campaign contributions should not be limited. How much an employees of the government can accept is clearly constitutional to limit.

        Who cares if politicians spend their own money. Bad people will not spend their own money to take a job where they get paid less than they would in the real world. If you limit government sufficiently, bad people who want power won’t take the positions because their power is limited.

        Lobbyists do not necessarily have what it takes to win as a politician.

        I don’t want politicians accepting money for specific favors, other than that…its politics.

        1. “How much an employees of the government can accept is clearly constitutional to limit.”

          Yes, but you completely missed my point, a lot of the people you want to limit from accepting money are not YET government employees.

          “Bad people will not spend their own money to take a job where they get paid less than they would in the real world.”

          If that were true, Trump would not be president.

          “Lobbyists do not necessarily have what it takes to win as a politician.”

          The basic premise behind limits on making (or accepting) campaign contributions is that the main thing it takes to win is money, or at least that a money advantage trumps everything else.

          1. It depends how you define ‘paid less’. Sure, DJT could probably make more as a TV host, but he wouldn’t be in a position to give his companies multi-million dollar tax breaks.

      2. It’s not Trump I’m worried about, it’s the Bloomberg types. Trump has proven his ability to exercise restraint in the face of courts trying to steal executive power concerning the intersection of national security and immigration [clearly defined by statue]. To paint the picture better, England has a nanny state going and look what a steaming pile that is becoming. Even the prime minister is so constrained by hate speech laws that she is unable to correctly identify muslim threats to the nation at a time when citizens are being mowed down and having their throats cut. When statesmen can’t speak, there is no representation of any kind. Zero. We should take all steps to avoid becoming bound in a mental straightjacket or we’ll find the same fate. So, blow up limits – just demand sunshine, and know that caveat emptor never goes out of style.

  7. Excellent article, well argued, impressive number of synonyms for “bribe”.

  8. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
    Stolen seat!

    1. I know, the position was supposed to be solely controlled by Warren.

  9. I once ran on the LP ticket for some federal office. In a debate, I said I would have all contributions funnelled through a CPA and he would not tell me who contributed to the campaign so I wouldn’t be susceptible to pressure. I was told by the other candidates that what I proposed was totally illegal.

    1. How are we supposed to know that you’re a Russian agent when your funding isn’t disclosed?

      1. No need to know the funding. If he is not a democrat, he is a Russian agent.
        If he is a democrat, he is an angel; from a non-discriminatory somewhere other than the conventional Christian and Jewish heaven.

        1. Secular progressive heaven. Barack Obama isn’t quite God there, but he’s still deeply revered.

        2. A parking lot attendant from Hackensack, NJ?

    2. “I once ran on the LP ticket”

      Ewwwww

      1. He was in it for the participation trophy.

    3. Fine point, and it shows the games being played in DC. No, you may not hide names and amounts contributed. The business of having legal contribution limits demands reporting of individual contributions or discovery/enforcement cannot take place. This might appear to limit key contributors alongside of the limited sunlight benefits. But, it also forces a massive unbundling machine to be in place to cope with the likes of Soros money being thrown around, and is both inefficient and worse… it ensures discovery of things [maybe] occurs after the election has come and gone, and that’s a public disservice. Anyone remember Hillary’s senate run, and a chinese dishwasher with $70k in cash? Who’s money was that? It sure wasn’t his – he was one of a number of unbundlers used to re-aggregate money while hiding provenance. Whether it was a 1:5:1 or 1:150:1 scenario, our campaign laws helped build that nefarious activity by setting “limits”. I like the sunlight part, and think we can benefit by ending limits to enhance speedier discovery/end some of the games.

  10. Continuing to blame evil corporations is putting the cart before the horse. Congress actively pursues contributor’s money exactly in the same way Walmart actively pursues my money.

    Congress has more tools than Walmart does to coerce a sale – Congress can both offer something of value or threaten to take away something of value.

    Congress selects for people who are willing to sell themselves. The only way to change that is to take away their ability to influence the lives of contributors.

    1. Walmart has a committee that can get to the pay window before I do? Not a chance, but we already knew that. As for offering something of value, at least when I go to a walmart, I will have something in may hands after they take my money. So… where’s my cut of secton 8 housing [or any other prog “community investment”], eh? If congress behaved as a corporation, then I would be treated as a shareholder, and dividends would be forthcoming.

  11. Whenever “corporations making political contributions” comes up, most people think of for-profit megabusinesses like banks, automobile manufacturers, retail store chains, and the like.

    Most of the big campaign spenders are member organizations, like unions (AFGE), special-interest organizations (AARP, NRA), and partisan political organizations (Emily’s List, Citizen’s United).

    Just make the donations transparent. If I know who gives a candidate money, I know which way to vote.

    1. “If I know who gives a candidate money, I know which way to vote.”
      Trump says he gave to every candidate so your options could be limited. Unless of course you want to throw your vote away on an LP candidate.

      1. Trump also explained why: so his calls would be answered/returned. Benefits? The best way to win in court is to never go there. A little guidance or a friendly phone call from a congressmans office to an agency can avoid alot of land mines by avoiding screw ups. Statutes don’t always guide clearly – it’s the agency policies and procedures that do [when processing paperwork], as they are understood/promulgated. If you’ve ever [for example] interfaced with an immigration lawyer vs. dealing with people actually working inside State, you probably wondered why the lawyer deserved to be paid. You are better off finding out what bureaucrats want/expect nine out of ten times, because most of them don’t speak case law. To that end, having a high net worth requires extra care and attention to detail that a 40hr/week wage earner has little to no need of.

  12. The major lesson I take from politics is that the way to fight through cognitive dissonance is by getting really angry at something.

    1. ^^^This.

      With some editing this could be a great bumper sticker.

    2. Perfect. It explains snowflakes and much, much more.

  13. ” By one count, $6.5 billion was spent on the presidential and congressional elections in 2016, ”

    And yet we expect those clowns to balance the national budget? (or are we the clowns for electing them?)

    In theory, politicians need money for ads to get their message out. That excuse went away when Al Gore invented the internet. Now a single government monitored web page at ‘candidates.gov’ could provide a completely fair and accessible platform to all candidates. The government would not control the content, just monitor that the content was from the actual candidate (not the Russians for instance).
    With this in place, we could outlaw ALL contributions to ALL politicians and candidates. Any money they get outside of federal salary and investment growth from the blind trust they put all assets in, is by definition a bribe.

    1. TOM BEEBE’S AMENDMENT

      No candidate for the Presidency or either house of Congress shall accept contributions in cash or in kind from any organization or group of persons for expenses incurred in a campaign for that office. All such contributions shall be made only by individual citizens who shall attest that the funds or other items of value are from their own resources and that they have not received, nor have they been promised, offsetting items of value from any other party in exchange for their contribution. The identity and extent of contributors to such campaigns shall be made public for a period of thirty days from receipt before being employed or used as collateral for a loan by such campaigns. Organizations of any type may, without restriction, expend money to advocate a position on any issue before or likely to come before the electorate insofar as no candidate’s name or description is included in their expressions of advocacy.

  14. People will always use money to try to influence policymakers, either directly or indirectly. The solution is to make politicians not worth buying.

    1. ^this 100%.

    2. “The solution is to make politicians not worth buying.”

      They will always be worth buying. They are the ones writing and passing legislation. A better solution is to punish those who give or receive bribes.

  15. The democrats in this article are not just being histrionic when they condemn Mulvaney, they are outright lying.

    I have personally been on the giving side of lobbying meetings with several prominent democrats. Our business needed help from the federal government in the form of legislation that made the legal status of certain insurance-related transactions crystal clear. So we went to congress.

    We showed up for breakfast meetings with individual checks for $1,700 in hand. We threw fundraisers and listened to pared-down versions of stump speeches. And since the Democrats were running congress at the time, that’s who we worked with.

    Not only did none of them object to getting a campaign contribution, every single one of them was pretty explicit about how many dollars it takes to get a one-on-one meeting with the Representative or Senator. It wasn’t massive dollar amounts… a few grand usually. But they have to fundraise several nights every week for their entire term in order to fund the next election campaign. They don’t have time to take many pro-bono meetings.

  16. A bullet to the back of the head for those unlucky few who are caught giving or taking bribes in Communist China.

    1. Sounds like utopia. You should go live there.

      1. I have lived there. It’s not as frightening as you imagine it to be, I managed to leave unscathed though I wasn’t bribing politicians. I never rose above perfectly legal badgering and wheedling petty bureaucrats.

        1. Communist nations are not all superficially frightening. Its the undercurrents that should make you want to leave.

          I would bet that in China you did not openly discuss the pitfalls of Communism and how Mao killed millions of his own people.

          Lots of bland concrete and steel buildings is another thing you used to see in Commie countries.

          1. “Its the undercurrents that should make you want to leave.”

            I found people in China to be a lot more optimistic about their future than Americans.

            “I would bet that in China you did not openly discuss the pitfalls of Communism and how Mao killed millions of his own people.”

            Are you talking about betting money?

            “Lots of bland concrete and steel buildings is another thing you used to see in Commie countries.”

            You mean commie cities. I spent most of my time in mountainous regions and rural areas. The air’s a lot cleaner and the place is less crowded. Cheaper too.

  17. Repeal the 17th amendment. We already have an elected House. At least 100 Senators would have to answer to somebody besides the National parties. Increase the number of state house votes necessary to retain office. 1st term 50%, 2nd term 60%,etc. This will stimulate the local economies as well as the lobbyists will need to maintain 50 offices.

    1. I’m good with repeal, and throw on term limits for good measure. While the senate has always been a problem child, the business of destroying any possibility of having some check and balance in congress that can preserve states rights was a major blow to the nation, and a major mistake. The damage done over the last century was completely unnecessary, and our senate has devolved into a cult of the nearly useless.

  18. A bit of semantics to consider: What collective, be it corporation, union, fraternal lodge, trade association…. is not a special interest? If the elected are to represent WE, THE PEOPLE, shouldn’t we be the only ones putting them in power, through both votes and cash? What’s YOUR opinion of this?

    TOM BEEBE’S AMENDMENT

    No candidate for the Presidency or either house of Congress shall accept contributions in cash or in kind from any organization or group of persons for expenses incurred in a campaign for that office. All such contributions shall be made only by individual citizens who shall attest that the funds or other items of value are from their own resources and that they have not received, nor have they been promised, offsetting items of value from any other party in exchange for their contribution. The identity and extent of contributors to such campaigns shall be made public for a period of thirty days from receipt before being employed or used as collateral for a loan by such campaigns. Organizations of any type may, without restriction, expend money to advocate a position on any issue before or likely to come before the electorate insofar as no candidate’s name or description is included in their expressions of advocacy.

    1. I’m a special interest. But I can’t afford a lobbyist! Oh, well… back to work.
      It occurs to me that corporations are just a reflex reaction to congressional malfeasance [especially its unwillingness to do tort reform]: the need to preserve capital has any serious wealth incorporated and/or in a trust.
      But color me curious about your amendment: why do you leave room for the senate and the VP to be lobbied? You do realize that by preserving corporate lobbying of the senate, you also open the door to lobbying for [yet unconfirmed] judges? We already have self appointed legislators on the bench, and its a serious problem.

  19. To remove money from politics you have to get rid of what attracts money to politics; the convoluted tax code, excessive regulation and excessive government spending.

  20. Mick, can you outline a plan that shows how government is made “weaker” so that politicians are no longer worth buying put it still functions in some way? Should the government no longer play any part building infrastructure, the military, public lands? Could there be several corporate military suppliers that we can choose to buy services from? Would they be regional monopolies like internet providers and health care?

    I suppose the flip side to this idea is communism. Get rid of private ownership and there won’t be corporations to bribe officials. But there may be historical evidence to show that won’t end well, either.

    Plato’s idea of politicians for life, who cannot be bribed, sort of like the Supreme Court, might be worth looking at.

    At any rate, I don’t see any current political system that protects us from the self serving narcissists, psychopaths, etc that are currently in public office supposedly representing all political parties.

    1. “At any rate, I don’t see any current political system that protects us from the self serving narcissists, psychopaths,”

      Chosen by lot. The jury system has been around quite a while and is pretty good. I hate to imagine facing a jury that was composed by an elected professional cadre of jurors constantly trying to scrape together funds for re-election. Bad enough facing cadres of elected professional police, judges and politicians.

      1. For once, trueman, we agree.
        I’ve been advocating random ss# generating for a couple years now.
        A random sample of citizens can’t run the country worse than its currently being run

    2. What? 535 Strom Thurmonds fossilizing before the nation? No, sir – Plato would amend his observations after seeing that politicians for life still have money thrown at them. Give me term limits: the “pros” are killing us.

  21. Require video recording of all meetings between congressmen (or their staff) and lobbyists, and make the videos accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Post the amount of the lobbyist’s campaign contributions under each video, and enable the public to post comments under each video. Increased transparency can’t hurt and might help.

  22. It’s ok as long as they’re donating to someone I like. Screw everyone else’s reps though.

  23. Nice to read this article…
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  24. So, Mulvaney spoke the truth – that is a newsworthy event in DC. I find no conondrum regarding lobbyists there – people are lobbying because congress accrued too much power to itself in the first place. Return to the limits of the constitution and half of the garbage will stop. Speaking of garbage… the CFPB should simply close its doors, as it’s a budget in search of a raison d’etre.

  25. The interaction between corporations and politicians has parallels in the interaction between labor unions and politicians and in the interaction between government workers and politicians. Don’t focus on corporations only.

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