Advocates for tougher campaign finance regulations say comments from Mick Mulvaney seeming to describe a pay-to-play style of politics on Capitol Hill will boost their long-term effort to overhaul the rules and could benefit like-minded candidates in the midterm elections.
Mulvaney, the White House budget chief and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told a group of bankers Tuesday that when he served in Congress, his office refused meetings with lobbyists who did not provide political contributions. Mulvaney, a Republican, represented a South Carolina district from January 2011 to February 2017, when he became director of the Office of Management and Budget.
“We had a hierarchy in my office, in Congress. If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you,” Mulvaney said, according to a transcript of his speech to the American Bankers Association provided by the CFPB.
“If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you. If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talk to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions,” he continued.
His words depict a portrait of political donors buying potential access to lawmakers that campaign finance watchdogs and their allied lawmakers rarely see in public. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Banking Committee, called for Mulvaney to resign, as have such watchdog groups as Public Citizen, End Citizens United and Every Voice.
Watch: Quitting Congress for Cash Is a Recent Phenomenon
More broadly, they are seizing on the dustup to advance both long-shot legislative changes as well as voluntary ones, such as lawmakers refusing donations from political action committees or registered lobbyists.
“I don’t think people should be casting stones or singling out any individual, but we should be asking, ‘What are the reforms we can undertake?’ so that good people who come to serve the country aren’t co-opted by lobbyists and interest groups,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, who is drafting legislation that would provide up to $50 per election cycle in taxpayer money to Americans to contribute to federal campaigns.
“It’s a broken system,” the California Democrat said. “And Mick, I think, is an honorable person who has a world view with which I disagree. I’ve always found him to be a person of integrity, but he’s operating in a system, like many members of Congress, where special interests have just run rampant.”
Khanna declines contributions from all PACs and co-founded a No PAC Caucus in Congress last year.
Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, who chairs the Democrats’ Democracy Reform Task Force, said Mulvaney’s comments offered “a prime example of the warped and wicked effect that big money has on our democracy.”
Laws and rules
Mulvaney was stressing the importance of grass-roots and constituent advocacy in his remarks, “sharing how those people are more important than lobbyists or even financial contributors,” his aide John Czwartacki said in an email.
“People coming from back home, to tell people in Congress what issues are important to them, is one of the fundamental underpinnings of our representative democracy, and you have to continue to do it,” Mulvaney told the bankers, according to the speech transcript.
Ethics and lobbying lawyers said Mulvaney’s comments urging outsiders to lobby Congress could raise questions about a federal law dating back to 1919 that prohibits administration officials from engaging in certain forms of lobbying activities. The Project on Government Oversight filed a complaint Wednesday with the Government Accountability Office asking it to investigate the issue.
Campaign finance and congressional ethics experts said Mulvaney did not appear to violate any political money laws. But were he still in Congress, the remarks could have triggered the Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee to open an investigation, they said. Neither has authority now because Mulvaney is out of Congress.
The House ethics manual states that lawmakers and staff “should always exercise caution to avoid even the appearance that solicitations of campaign contributions are connected in any way with an action taken or to be taken in their official capacity.”
Craig Holman, a government and lobbying ethics expert with liberal-leaning Public Citizen, said it did not appear that Mulvaney had violated any campaign finance laws. But he said the former congressman’s words indicate that even as President Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp,” his administration has not.
“What it is, is highly unethical and a reflection of the swamp of the Trump administration,” said Holman, a registered lobbyist.
Others pressing for new campaign finance laws said such measures would be necessary to help restore Americans’ faith in government.
“Right now, Americans’ faith in government is at a historic low, and they think that Washington serves the wealthy and powerful interests,” said Adam Bozzi, communications director with End Citizens United. “They’re not wrong.”
Bozzi said not all lawmakers may be as “brazen” as Mulvaney, “but the system isn’t working” and requires an overhaul of lobbying, ethics and campaign finance laws.
‘The swamp is full’
Even lobbyists distanced their industry from Mulvaney’s words.
“These comments and behaviors cannot become the norm in Washington,” said lobbyist Paul Miller, who is president of the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics.
Absent legislative action, which is unlikely in the current GOP-controlled Congress, End Citizens United has tracked more than 100 lawmakers and candidates, such as Khanna, who have pledged to refuse campaign donations from corporate political action committees.
Newly elected Rep. Conor Lamb, a Pennsylvania Democrat, swore off corporate PACs in his special election, while Sen. Kamala Harris of California recently joined a growing roster of potential 2020 Democratic presidential contenders in rejecting PAC money.
“Mick Mulvaney’s comments absolutely prove what most Americans think and what people like me have been saying for years: lobbyists and Wall Street bankers are able to buy influence and access with their campaign contributions,” said Adam Smith of Every Voice, a campaign finance overhaul group.
Though the current Congress is unlikely to move on sweeping political money overhaul legislation, Smith said that makes it even more important for candidates running for office to prioritize the issue.
“The swamp is full,” Smith said. “I’ve got my waders on.”