WASHINGTON WATCH:Pay to play

Many lawmakers don’t have such rules. But those who do, like Mulvaney, have helped give Congress such low stature in the eyes of voters.

By
June 13, 2018 22:29
WASHINGTON WATCH:Pay to play

DIRECTOR OF THE Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland in February.. (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)

 
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Not everyone is as honestly dishonest as Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. He recently admitted to a bunch of bankers that as a three-term congressman from South Carolina, any lobbyist who wanted to see him had to pay.

“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,” he confessed. Constituents got in free. How generous.

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He waited until he left Congress to make his admission, in case the ethics committee might suddenly wake up, and saved it for a meeting of the American Bankers Association in April. That audience is important because Trump also picked Mulvaney to destroy the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which helps regulate their industry. He’s doing them a lot of favors, including eliminating the database used by hundreds of thousands of consumers to file complaints against financial institutions, The Washington Post reported.

Charging for lobby visits is not the norm in Washington.

Many lawmakers don’t have such rules. But those who do, like Mulvaney, have helped give Congress such low stature in the eyes of voters.

It’s a game the pro-Israel lobby long ago learned to play effectively. It has paid handsome dividends for their cause over the years – but it is also another example of a badly broken system that has helped put the interests of big money far ahead of those of ordinary citizens and, sometimes, the nation itself.

Donald Trump was a longtime practitioner of pay to play. “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 has said.

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Judging by the people Trump has appointed to run his administration, pay to play seems to be a guiding principle.

In an administration known for the breadth and depth of its corruption, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is a standout. He is the target of several investigations at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but his ethically challenged boss thinks he is “doing a great job” dismantling environmental protection.

The real economic benefit of Trump’s government- wide deregulation crusade is not better government for consumers and taxpayers, but increased corporate profits.

I’ve been a registered lobbyist for many years, mostly for Jewish causes and organizations, including a decade as the legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I wish I could tell you that Israel’s bipartisan wall-to-wall support on Capitol Hill is a product of love, shared values and strategic interests.

But sometimes it took more. I call it the “ka-ching” factor, because often when I would walk into a lawmaker’s office I had the feeling they heard the sound of a cash register.

For many it was pay to play.

In his initial meeting with wealthy Jewish Republicans at Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas casino in late 2015, candidate Trump said, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” Adelson’s money went to others until Trump locked up the nomination and came back to the casino mogul. Adelson donated $20 million and raised more from rich friends to help Trump in exchange for what is widely believed to be a commitment to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It took a bit more pressure and calls from Adelson but the investment paid off – Trump delivered last month on Israel’s 70th birthday.

SOMETIMES IT takes time to get a return on an investment.

Shortly after he came to the Senate in 1986, Mitch McConnell told a top AIPAC official he needed about $15,000 to pay off his campaign debt. This news was shared at an AIPAC officers meeting, which was quickly and briefly adjourned while the hat was passed for “our friend Mitch.”

By the time they went around the table, the AIPAC leader had raised a bit over his goal, so he asked his fellow officers in his southern drawl to “make it an even “Chai,” $18,000. They all knew what they were doing: buying access and, hopefully, loyalty. It proved a good investment.

Another AIPAC macher – the self-proclaimed smartest political player in the United States – thought he befriended curmudgeonly old Sen. Robert Byrd, who many, including on his own staff, considered hostile to Jews and Israel. This AIPAC officer was sure he could win over the West Virginia Democrat with his charm and his checkbook. He got the access he sought and when he went in to collect a vote, Byrd told him, “You’ve got one. Is this it?” Harry Reid was a freshman congressman in 1983 who had sought assignment on the Foreign Affairs Committee, in part at the urging of some of his Jewish supporters. One day toward the end of his first year, the Nevada Democrat called me over to say he was thinking of changing committees because he wasn’t getting the kind of Jewish “support” he’d expected. Some calls were made and he stayed on the committee for two terms until he ran for the Senate, where he spent the next 30 years. Another good investment.

The top aide to a key Democratic chairman called to tell me his boss was disappointed he hadn’t been getting many contributions from his Jewish friends. I pointed out that the congressman was unopposed in his primary and wouldn’t have more than token opposition in the fall, if that. Doesn’t matter, he said, his boss felt badly because all his colleagues were raising “Jewish money” and “it’s embarrassing” because he wasn’t.

A Jewish congressman called to ask me to set up a meeting with the leader of another major Jewish organization, to say he’d like to meet over lunch to talk about how he could help on a high-profile issue. The meeting was arranged; the congressman just made small talk and avoided substance; and the Jewish leader was miffed that his time had been wasted. But he was even more upset when a few hours later a top aide to the congressman called to solicit a large contribution.

I have many such stories and so does every other lobbyist.

Sometimes supporters genuinely need help and if helping them helps the cause, I’m comfortable with that.

But as the Trump swamp demonstrates with painful clarity, the pay-to-play environment is giving the United States the worst government money can buy. Pro-Israel lobbyists might be working for a good cause, but they too, are part of the problem.

Many lawmakers – even the good guys with open doors and open minds – complain that pay to play is necessary because of the inordinate amount of time and effort they are forced to devote to fund-raising. There’s a solution, but too many are simply not interested: public financing.

There’s an even easier way to start reforming the system: Congress can adopt a rule that states no lawmaker may require campaign contributions for anyone requesting a meeting. They can call it the Mulvaney Rule.

The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.

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