With the US House of Representatives selecting a new Speaker, Peter Schweizer reminds us that the choice was never about policy.
“The speakership is all about money,” Schweizer says on the most recent episode of The Drill Down. “It’s an open secret.”
Most Americans believe the choice reflects the Speaker’s ability to unite the often-fractious members of his or her party, but Schweizer reminds American voters the Speaker is expected to raise at least $20 million per year for his party, a task that many former members say can take up to 75-80 percent of his time. Former Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was a prodigious fundraiser for the Democrats, generating about $32 million for her party while she served.
The point is that all of that fundraising pressure on senior members makes them ripe for lobbyists who want to influence legislation and gives them an incentive to place so-called “milker bills” on the House floor specifically to draw lobbyist money to their party coffers.
This means the special interests are “clamoring to get money to congressmen,” Schweizer said. “It’s like the old Mafia story … ‘Nice business you got here. Hate to see it burned down.’”
“It’s like extortion,” Schweizer added.
Ousted Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made a point at his press conference last week to mention his now-unrestricted fundraising skills, perhaps as a warning to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), leader of the eight Republican congressmen who spearheaded his ouster. “When I was running for Speaker, I couldn’t get involved in the primaries within the conference. I’m a free agent now, and I think I’m pretty good at electing people,” McCarthy said.
In Schweizer’s blockbuster book Extortion, the Government Accountability Institute revealed the existence of various “menus” of fundraising commitments both for getting on the most important committees and other party leadership positions. The more important the committee, the higher the fundraising commitment.
But it is not only the vulnerability to influence-peddling special interests that hurts the operation of the House. It’s the lack of time left over for creating good policy, and crafting better laws. Members of Congress with huge fundraising quotas to make don’t have time to focus on what policies make the most sense for the country or their constituents. Former members complain about this tax on their time frequently.
Co-host Eric Eggers recalls a comment made by current congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY) that Republican leaders would stuff fundraising reminders in his jacket pockets while he was on the House floor. Democrats tell similar stories.
Former congressman Paul Mitchell from Michigan noted that while he was in office a lot of the money he raised while in Congress was sent to his party’s congressional committee, it didn’t even appear on his own campaign finance reports.
The reason: “Serious legislative work doesn’t pay. Fundraising pays,” Schweizer said.
Maybe some good can come of a new Speaker, the hosts ask. Maybe reforms that limit the times when fundraising can be conducted might re-orient both parties toward accomplishing legislative goals, not glancing up at a fundraising scoreboard?