The brilliance of Donald Trump's "drain the swamp" ethos is that profiting politically off its deployment requires adherence to only one rule: Stay on message. You can do whatever you want: charter flights to Oklahoma, buy a solid-gold dining set for your office, put fish tanks in your Suburban, whatever! As long as you remember to swear fealty to the promise of a leaner, truthful, and more transparent federal government whenever you find yourself behind a hot mic, all else will be forgiven, likely over a very expensive meal.
On Tuesday, in remarks delivered at a conference in Washington before an audience of some 1,300—that's one thousand three hundred—banking-industry types, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Mick Mulvaney said the quiet part out loud. From The New York Times:
“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” [said] Mr. Mulvaney, a former Republican lawmaker from South Carolina... “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.”
At the top of the hierarchy, he added, were his constituents.
“If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions,” said Mr. Mulvaney, who received nearly $63,000 from payday lenders for his congressional campaigns.
He concluded by encouraging attendees to redouble their efforts to influence banking legislation, reminding them that members of Congress "will never know as much about your issues as you do," and "will not know that it is as important to you as it is until you tell them." Mulvaney even referred to these industry attempts to shape the policymaking process as one of the "fundamental underpinnings of our representative democracy," just like free speech and equal protection.
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When asked for comment by the Times, a Mulvaney spokesperson asserted that he was "making the point that hearing from people back home is vital to our democratic process," and that it is "more important than lobbyists and...more important than money." This is a nice sentiment that pointedly ignores the first thing Mulvaney said, which is that once all the South Carolinians seeking an audience were satisfied and his office moved on to those who were not his constituents, the first thing they did was look at the campaign ledger to see if the requesting party's name appeared on it.
Flippant remarks like these confirm all the worst assumptions Americans hold about how Washington works. In the same breath in which he urges members of the banking industry to talk to their government, purportedly for the good of the republic, Mulvaney—drawing on his personal experience with legislative corruption—also makes clear that their voices won't actually be heard unless the speaker does a little something else, too. In the pay-to-play system he describes, the merits of a given idea are irrelevant. Financial contributions are a necessary condition for participation in the policymaking process.
The Trump administration is full of cheerful kleptocrats like Mulvaney, all of whom share a remarkable ability to bleat about swamp-draining in public while using their newfound positions of power to enrich themselves or people like them in private. For the most part, these efforts have been quiet and efficient, since their perpetrators are secure in the knowledge that their boss is uninterested in or incapable of exercising meaningful oversight. Mick Mulvaney just got tired of pretending.