How a Committee Tax Fills the Swamp with Lobbyist Money
This is a guest post authored by Mitch Nemeth
Congress is broken. This has become remarkably clear as Congress fails to agree to a new COVID-19 relief bill. Any relief bill that materializes is likely to be stuffed with special interest “pork” and unrelated provisions, as was the initial COVID-19 relief bill (the CARES Act). Republicans want to include COVID-19 related lawsuit liability shields for businesses. Democrats want bailouts of highly indebted states and unrelated election changes such as expanded mail-in-voting. The truth is both sides want to utilize the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to compile their partisan, special interest wish list.
Everyday voters do not understand the degree to which Congress is corrupted. If they did, it is likely that a supermajority of voters would seek to overturn the system. Instead, this incredibly flawed system is perpetuated by political polarization and the nonsensical belief that either political party is interested in changing the status quo.
There are countless institutional problems with Congress, from campaign financing to the growth of the Administrative State. A key criticism of the institution is its transformation into a massive fundraising scheme for the national political parties and their affiliated entities. As a report by the nonpartisan advocacy group, Issue One, notes, “While the phrase ‘party dues’ may sound innocuous, the current system is anything but. This goes beyond party loyalty. The message it sends is simple: Want to chair a committee? That will cost you…This is tantamount to a ‘committee tax’ imposed on members of Congress by the parties.”
Over the past few years, some Congressmen have been going public with their grievances. Recently, HBO premiered a documentary titled, “The Swamp,” which focuses on the influence of special interest money into political campaigns and re-election efforts. For example, Representative Ken Buck of Colorado is featured; in the documentary he outlines how members of Congress are “charged ‘dues’ for good committee assignments, and more if they hope to become committee chairs,” according to MinnPost.
The contribution scheme works as follows: “The party leaders…are quite reasonably interested in raising funds for the party committees and incentivizing the members of their caucuses to raise funds for those committees as well. One way to incentivize along those lines is to reward successful fundraisers with good committee assignments and even chairmanships.”
Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie, an outspoken critic of this fundraising, has said, “These committees all have prices and don’t pick an expensive one if you can’t make the payments…That’s part of the orientation.” Massie’s colleague Representative Justin Amash tweeted a similar message, “Members of Congress have to pay the Republican or Democratic parties hundreds of thousands of dollars for official committee assignments. It’s literally pay campaign money to play in Congress.”
Given that committee chairs have so much influence in the advancement of policy, voters should expect members of Congress who chair committees to be the most knowledgeable. Instead, committee chairs are expected to raise huge sums of money for their political party, which means “that chairs are forced to spend a lot of their limited time making fundraising calls,” rather than holding hearings about issues that voters sent them to Capitol Hill to address. This pressure to constantly fundraise in order to hold powerful committee assignments eventually leads to what Representative Buck refers to as “transactional giving,” which is when “special interests give money to affect legislation moving through Congress.” How does a bipartisan, undemocratic scheme like this continue?
This fundraising regime continues because of the incentives at the heart of this scheme. Members of Congress rely on political party support, campaign contributions, special interest support, and constituent support (in no particular order). President George Washington’s infamous farewell address predicted this future: “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
Daily political squabbles yield predictable results: legislation or confirmations passed along party lines and congressional hearings used to preach political theater. The end result of nearly every issue outside of increased government spending is stalemate. Congressional stalemate leads to Executive overreach because the President made promises to voters, even if this overreach is possibly unconstitutional. Both political parties can contend that they tried to push their opponents to support their position and any opposition is framed in the most malicious terms imaginable. In the end, the American people and the Constitution are the losers; special interests reap the benefits of an unprincipled political class and an undemocratic campaign financing regime.