MARTIN SCHRAM: Congress is shocked at how lobbyists’ money works

By MARTIN SCHRAM
Guest Columnist

(TNS) Casablanca-on-the-Potomac was open for business early Wednesday morning.

And frankly, I was shocked to discover how many of today’s famous players and media chroniclers — insiders who are proud to be called the cognoscenti — were rushing to the cameras and microphones to insist they were “shocked, shocked!” to hear that a top Trump official who used to be a congressman admitted Tuesday that pay-to-play wheeling-and-dealing actually happens, big time, in the grand casino beneath the gleaming white Capitol dome.

“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who, in a bizarre arrangement, is also the interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, reportedly told 1,300 bankers and lending industry execs of the American Bankers Association. “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 New York Times’ editors appropriately displayed that business-as-usual report back in the business section, at the bottom of page B1. But then the capital cognoscenti began reacting as if the report (which most of my colleagues never bothered to cover) had been bannered across the front page. Buried in the news story was the factoid that when he was in the House, Mulvaney, who is now mainly muzzling the bureau’s consumer-protecting watchdogs, got nearly $63,000 from payday lenders he is now supposed to be regulating.

“Can you believe this quote?” asked former Florida Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough, who is now far more famous as MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “Just says it out loud!” Scarborough elaborated: “It’s rare that we hear articulated and spoken out loud something that amounts to, well, bribery, in effect.”

I often agree with Scarborough. But not Wednesday – because I was shocked when he said he was shocked. After all, I thought I’d investigated and explained long ago how things really work between legislators and lobbyists. And Mulvaney (who is not right as often as a stopped clock) was right on this.

In 1995, I wrote a book, titled “Speaking Freely” (published by the Center for Responsive Politics) in which 25 former Democratic and Republican senators and representatives explained precisely that. Premise: I’d told the ex-members that, since they were no longer in politics, they could finally speak freely and explain how things really work “that the Marty Schrams of my business never find out about.” And lo, they did.

Most began with the classic litany: Money doesn’t buy votes, but it does buy access, and access often leads to favorable action.

“I think it gives them the opportunity to gain access and present their views in a way that might otherwise not be the case,” said former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Me.). Former House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.) said: “I think there’s a lot to access…What (the lobbyists) would like is to at least have a rapport with a member…”

Former Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D-Pa.): “You get invited to a dinner somewhere and someone gives you some money. And then you get a call a month later and he wants to see you. Are you going to say no? …You’re not going to say no. So it does buy access.”

In that book and especially in a 1994 Mother Jones magazine article titled “Shakedown,” I also emphasized how the system looks from the other end of the money funnel – the lobbyists’ offices. Virtually all members of Congress dial for dollars by telephoning lobbyists whose special interests are regulated by committees on which the members serve. Senators and representatives are asking for campaign money from special interest whose fates – and profits! – they can influence.

It’s a legal solicitation of what would be called a bribe if you or I did it. Because lobbyists know if they ever hope to be able to talk with a member about a future issue worth billions of dollars to their special interest, they must invest money in the member’s campaign now. Lobbyists say it’s like playing poker: They must ante-up now – so they can be a player at the table later.

Fast-forward: What Joe Scarborough started swelled into a chorale of discordant wailers, led mainly by progressives in Congress and the punditry, demanding Mulvaney be fired. (I guess for speaking truth to bankers.)

Meanwhile, all in the capital cognoscenti know the bottom line: Special interests invest in electing pols for the same reason corporate elites make any investment. Because they will reap huge profits from their investment – millions, often billions, of dollars in tax breaks, deferrals, loopholes and regulatory look-the-other ways. All funded by the U.S. Treasury.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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