To those American citizens who are convinced that Washington, D.C. is every bit the “swamp” that President Trump and his campaign team referred to it as, their worst fears have likely been confirmed with the release of a new book by Republican Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado. Appropriately enough, the book is entitled, “Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption Is Worse Than You Think.”
A first-term Congressman, Buck has seen firsthand how the unscrupulous system of Congressional committees operates, and its “pay-to-play” workings are enough to turn any voter’s stomach. At the heart of the nefarious system is what every voter fears is the prime motivator for any Washington politician: money.
Essentially, in order to join a Congressional committee in the House of Representatives — say, the Energy and Commerce Committee or the Rules Committee, Republican members of Congress need to raise a certain amount of money for their party. (It’s assumed that in the Democratic Party, the system is the same, although the precise sums may differ slightly from what’s outlined below).
Committees are divided into three categories ordered by their level of importance. At the top are ‘A’-level committees, which are the Ways and Means Committee, the Rules Committee, the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Financial Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee.
According to Buck, incumbent Republican members of Congress need to raise $450,000 for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) every two years to be allowed to join an ‘A’-level Congressional committee. For ‘B’- and ‘C’-level committees, the amount is about half that.
Why would a Congressperson want to join a Congressional committee? For several reasons: one, it gives them more say and power in government; two, it gives them more national prestige and press attention (and the clout generally desired if they want to seek higher office); and three, corporations and special interests will then seek them out, particularly if those groups have issues that will be affected by legislation under consideration by those committees.
In essence, they will become lobbyists’ primary contribution targets, which in turn helps them raise the funds necessary to join those committees in the first place.
Buck offers proof of this by showing how a Congressperson’s participation in certain committees — say, the Ways and Means Committee — can boost PAC fundraising levels by as much as $208,000 per year while out-of-state fundraising totals might rise by as much as $233,000.
Buck says that last year, the insurance, real estate and financial industries contributed a combined $29 million to the Congressional members of the Financial Services Committee, while members of the Ways and Means Committee saw $16 million from related industries and the Energy and Commerce Committee saw $8 million go to its members from those industries.
Buck cites an example of a biotechnology firm that got a favorable paragraph of language inserted into a “must-pass” fiscal-cliff bill that especially favored the company’s drugs. The insertion of the language allowed the company to sell the drugs without government controls for two years, but was projected to increase Medicare costs for the government by $500 million.
The bill was written behind closed doors and given to members of Congress at the last minute to vote on. Many members likely didn’t even read the language in it. The bill passed in order to keep the government running. The company, which employs 74 lobbyists in Washington, immediately celebrated by calling its investment analysts to tell them the good news.
What happens when a committee member doesn’t want to pay the “dues” to their party in order to stay on the committee they’re a part of? Although rare, it’s happened in a few cases, whereupon the NRCC then has financed the campaign of a Republican opponent to that Congressperson in the next primary election. Should the incumbent still win the election, further political action and or “mud-throwing” might be undertaken.
In some cases, discounts of up to 30 percent on a committee member’s “dues” are occasionally offered to members whose seats are in danger of being lost to Democrats in the next election, but only when these committee members are friendly to the NRCC’s agenda.
Chairpersons of a ‘B’ or ‘C’ committee are expected to raise at least eight times the amount that a normal member of the same committee is expected to contribute. Chairpersons of an ‘A’ committee are expected to raise at least five times the amount that normal members of the same committee are expected to contribute.
According to Buck, higher positions in the House leadership come with even greater expectations. The Deputy Whip of the House is expected to raise $2.5 million per year for the NRCC; the Whip and the Conference Chair each are expected to raise $5 million per year; the Majority Leader of the House is expected to raise $10 million; and the Speaker of the House is expected to raise $20 million.
Perhaps that’s why current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is so friendly with insurance industry lobbyists and free-trade groups; he raised more than $50 million in 2016 for himself and the NRCC.
Buck says that Congressmen who fall behind in their “dues” are denied use of perks such as the ability to make use of NRCC phone banks for fundraising or the group’s fancy recording studios to record political ads.
Presumably, the same kinds of shenanigans take place in the Senate as well, but likely with higher dollar amounts. Buck ran for the Senate in 2010, but was defeated after the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) gave his primary opponent $500,000, which she used in a smear campaign that the Democrat running in the election gleefully expanded on.
As Buck says, all of this has the effect of making money — rather than negotiating skill, knowledge or any other trait — the chief qualification for joining a Congressional committee. This is despite the fact that voters elect all Congresspeople to effect the will of the people and explicitly run the government. Buck further claims that the real battles in Congress are not between legislators of different political parties, but internecine conflicts taking place within parties themselves.
As Buck says, “In Congress, the consensus has always been, it’s better to sink the nation with debt than rock the boat with reform. If [voters] are going to drain the swamp, we need to change that [thinking].”