A Republican congressman’s new book details why it’s so difficult to bring about meaningful conservative reforms in Washington and how even GOP are quickly conditioned to go along to get along, a practice he says is driving up the debt and deeply eroding confidence in Washington.
Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colorado, is beginning his second term in the House of Representatives, but his first two years in Congress provided enough fodder for his new book “Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think.”
Buck narrowly lost the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Colorado. Four years later he easily won a seat in the House after incumbent Cory Gardner embarked on a successful U.S. Senate bid.
Already convinced Washington was broken, It didn’t take long for Buck to discover it was far worse than he realized.
“What surprised me was learning the specifics of the corruption, learning the details and how the establishment and leadership uses certain influences to try to create discipline and order to a certain extent but to also make sure that the special interest groups are taken care of,” said Buck.
One of the first big surprises was the pressure put on all members to fundraise on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is tasked with winning House races. Buck says all members are obligated to raise money and those on lucrative committees are tasked with raising even more.
The most high-profile committees include Appropriations, Ways & Means, Energy & Commerce, Rules and Financial Services.
“We have dues and if you’re on an ‘A’ committee your dues are higher than if you’re on a ‘B’ committee. By higher, I mean $450,000 this year for being on an ‘A’ committee,” said Buck.
For members to reach that bar requires groveling to special interests.
“They are reached by approaching special interest groups and asking for money. The challenge is those groups expect something in return. So there is a quid pro quo. There is a system in place. you are required to pay dues and you are required to raise money. Part of that is going to be being influenced by people that you may not agree with,” said Buck.
And as the parties try to placate their special interest donors, spending keeps rising and debt keeps increasing. Buck says leadership, in turn, tries to protect members from having to cast controversial or unpopular votes.
“The long-term effect is that members of Congress are reluctant to take tough votes and they are not reluctant to add more debt to our national balance sheet,” said Buck.
In addition to raising money, members are also expected to toe the line in backing the leadership’s agenda. “Drain the Swamp” is filled with first and second-hand accounts of former House Speaker John Boehner forcefully demanding members vote a certain way, punishing them for voting against the his wishes by stripping committee assignments and congressional travel opportunities, and berating members in front of their colleagues.
Other GOP figures, all of whom are named in the book, are called out for refusing to allow members to see the text of what they were voting on in Appropriations Committee hearings or for excoriating colleagues for voting against the wishes of Chairman Hal Rogers.
Buck says it’s easy to be convinced to go with the flow in Washington and that’s why he says electing men and women of strong character is critical.
“Our founding fathers created a system of government that really depends on a moral people and principled elected officials. A lot of the individuals coming to D.C. are very well meaning and principled when they get to D.C,” said Buck.
“I think there is a corrupting influence in the swamp. Ultimately, I think most people who are members of Congress start to compromise their values and start to figure out how they can get re-elected and avoid taking tough votes. That’s really the central issue in what’s corrupting the system,” said Buck.
Buck is very tough on Boehner in the book but says current House Speaker Paul Ryan runs a much better process.
“Paul Ryan is a policy wonk. He is a very bright individual. He can talk policy with anybody and does his best to convince people through good policy rather than through threats and intimidation or any kind of benefits. The policy and the politics are much more separated with Paul Ryan than they were with John Boehner,” said Buck.
But he notes Ryan has some key tests to pass in this Congress.
“We’ll see soon with the health care initiative and other initiatives on tax reform and immigration, whether Paul is going to be able to bring a coalition together to get that job done,” said Buck.
And how can the culture of Congress be turned around?
“I think we get out of this with good principled people. I think we get out of this with Americans reading this book, understanding what is going on in D.C. in some detail and exercising and exerting influence from the outside to make sure that we reform,” said Buck.
“We need to make sure that the pay-to-play system is ruled unethical by the Ethics Committee and that it stops. I think there’s a lot of reforms that we can enact inside Congress. I think we also need to work from the outside to pass important measures like a balanced budget amendment,” said Buck.
One of Buck’s greatest concern is the nation’s $20 trillion in official debt, especially with entitlements and unfunded liabilities set to explode over the next decade. He suggests one the most irresponsible patterns in Congress is to pass government funding through emergency omnibus measures, rather than through the individual appropriations bills.
Buck says there hasn’t been regular order on appropriations since 1994.
“When we don’t go through regular order and pass 12 appropriations bills that are discussed on the floor and open for amendment, we end up with a last-minute crisis management situation, where we’re told we have to keep government open,” said Buck.
“A lot of spending programs are put into the omnibus bill that members don’t know about because we have very little time to review that bill, and it costs taxpayers more money,” said Buck.
Buck says he wrote the book to get Americans even more motivated to clean up our politics.
“I’d like to make sure people understand that D.C. is broken and that it is each American’s responsibility and to stand up and take action. I hope it motivates people to be involved in the system,” said Buck.