“These special interests who control Washington, they do it with money. They are the ones who come up with the money that allows you to, say, purchase your committee chairmanship, that costs a minimum of $1 million… So to be a powerful congressman, you have to come up with that million bucks."
— Former U.S. Congressman from Alabama, Mo Brooks
“Retiree” often means a person who can now speak freely. Not all retirees choose to sing, though, and thus I commend recent political retiree, former U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, for his candor about the nature of Washington’s (and Alabama’s) market for political favors.
To his credit, Brooks didn’t need years of retirement reflection to tell his tale. He has long been a principled gadfly, consistently singing a tune against special interest corruption while in office. I suspect that’s partly why Brooks is no longer a congressman. His public railing against special interests and his willingness to give the game away for many of his former congressional colleagues was too much for the Swamp to take.
But regarding establishment politicians and party loyalists as mere lackeys and lapdogs to special interests is only half the story. Indeed, if you wish to survive, thrive, and lead in Washington D.C., it seems you must prove you are willing and able to play the long game, squeezing special interests and the general populace out of their money. Why else would a committee chairmanship cost a million dollars?
It’s the parties who set and collect the fees for powerful committee chairs, not the rich special interests. Washington has long been a seller’s market for political favors, and those who hold power will always be able to demand tribute to gain personal profit.
Brooks is not the only retiree who tells this story of the rich and powerful in Washington. Others, including the late founder of Apache Corporation, Ray Plank, and Edward Kangas, former global chairman of Deloitte Touche, recorded their stories in Peter Schweizer’s 2013 book, “Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets.” “Protection money” is how Plank described the 50 years of campaign donations and lobbying contracts from his company. “It’s what you expect from the mafia,” he said.
"What has been called legalized bribery looks like extortion to us,” Kangas added. “I know from personal experience and from other executives that it's not easy saying no to appeals for cash from powerful members of Congress or their operatives. Congress can have a major impact on business. ... The threat may be veiled, but the message is clear: failing to donate could hurt your company."
Schweizer agrees with that opinion. “Far from being passive recipients of money and favors, [government officials] make it happen,” Schweizer writes. “They leverage their positions to shake the money tree for themselves and their political allies. … The assumption is that we need to protect politicians from outside influences. But how about protecting ourselves from the politicians?”
To protect ourselves, it helps to know how politicians play this predatory political racket. So, let’s pretend you’re on the cutting edge of innovation and find yourself building a successful new industry.
My advice? Don’t ignore Washington. You may not be interested in Washington, but Washington is certainly interested in you and how they can use your creation and newfound wealth. The libertarian idealists of Silicon Valley learned this the hard way the last two decades, and those in the burgeoning cryptocurrency industry will soon learn this as well.
Second, if there is a big committee vote on some policy vital to your business’ bottom line, expect a fundraising invitation from the chairman of said committee. Swiftly accept this invitation with check in hand. Just to be safe, give to both parties generously. You’ll learn who needs to be paid in due time.
Third, if you want to comply with an overly complex law, hire the man who wrote the law, or the firm where he now works. Staffers, lobbyists, and bureaucrats who write esoteric laws often write their own ticket and expect to be rewarded handsomely for their service. Impossibly complex laws, staged partisan gridlock, prosecutorial discretion, regime uncertainty, and a ratchet effect towards bigger government all help to bolster Beltway revenue streams.
Fourth, if you want to buy an inside track with a powerful politician, hire his former staffer as a lobbyist. Hire the politician’s family member for an even closer relationship, or the politician himself—even before he retires from politics.
And finally, if you want to be a powerful member of Congress, learn to milk special interests and the populace for millions of dollars—or else you may end up as a principled, retired gadfly with plenty of time to make memories with the grandkids.
"That's what I mean when I say it's a very corrupt process that takes basically good people and then corrupts them,” Mo Brooks recently told radio talk host Scott Beason, “and unfortunately, the more people want to have power in Washington D.C., the more corrupt they are because the system requires that they be corrupt in order to get those powerful positions."
Indeed, power corrupts good people. And never underestimate how much power attracts bad people, already corrupted, who are more than happy to make you an offer you can’t refuse.
Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and is currently the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 9 am-12 noon. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com.
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