The X-Ray

[Swamp Stories] 2. Extorting the People's House

Episode Summary

Dialing for dollars. Party dues. They mean the same thing: Congressional leadership extorting members of Congress and turning them into little more than telemarketers. Guests: Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL-03) Former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-CA-03), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair (DCCC) Michael Beckel, Research Director, Issue One

Episode Notes

During their orientation on Capitol Hill, new members of Congress learn about a decades-old tradition often referred to as dialing for dollars, or dues. Political leaders effectively turn newly elected lawmakers into telemarketers — exchanging seats on committees for contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and sometimes millions, to the political parties.


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Episode Transcription

Weston Wamp for Issue One: Extorting the People’s House

January 27, 2020

Weston Wamp: I'm Weston Wamp and this is Swamp Stories, brought to you by Issue One

When you get elected to Congress, there's about a two month gap between Election Day and your swearing in in early January. And for a lot of reasons, this is an unusual time of transition. For one, officially there's a week right in the middle called Orientation Week.

Male Reporter Voice: "The halls of the U S Capitol feel a bit like high school this week, returning Congressmen struck with the confidence of seniors while newly elected members seem like eager freshmen."

Female Congressperson Voice: We've all been campaigning. We all have ideas. Our districts have sent us. Where are the bathrooms?

Weston Wamp: Orientation week is really a gray area for the American public. It's almost completely undocumented, but if you grew up around Congress like I did, you know that it's pretty important in the education of an incoming member of Congress and their family. It's during that week that the humbling reality sets in. You're about to serve in the same halls as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, but at the exact same time, incoming members are confronted with and asked to keep one of Washington's most bizarre and corrupt secrets.

Not long after being sworn in,in 2018 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez let the secret slip in an interview and put herself in a very small category of members of Congress, including White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, to call out this devious practice inside the beltway.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The one question that everyone kept asking is, "what committee do you want to be on? What committee you want to be on?" And I literally had just gotten elected. I remember thinking, “Wow, why is this the question?” And I spent one day in DC and I met with some folks, and it wasn't until like the very end of the day that I was told, “Well, you know. If you want a good committee, you got to raise funds.”

Weston Wamp: This is episode two, Extorting the People's House.

During Orientation Week, members of Congress have an office lottery to determine which of the bad available offices the new members are going to get. They're briefed on everything from staff budget to the rules of decorum on the house floor. Some of this week is bi-partisan and some of it is broken up by party caucus.

Tradition has it, for example, that new members are invited to 1 Observatory Circle, the VP's residence for dinner with their spouses. It's all kinds of pomp and circumstance. Tradition also has it after offices have been won and the butterflies that come with their first trip to the Capitol have begun to settle down, that new members are corralled by their party's leadership in the bowels of the Capitol for real talk. It's at this point that the surreal honor of serving in Congress is replaced by the sobering stench of the swamp.

Before even taking the oath of office, freshman members begin to learn the rules of a very broken game played by both parties in Washington, but the quote unquote game that we're focusing on here, wouldn't be a game at all in the private sector, it would be criminal activity, plain and simple. I know that's a big claim, but consider this: the secret of the swamp, and I'm about to explain to you, is rarely, if ever acknowledged publicly by sitting members of either party. Why is that?

Well, extortion in its worst form is when one group has such leverage that people in the know who aren't even being extorted are still fearful of what might happen if they say anything. And that's the case here.

This tradition isn't partisan. I was sitting in the office of a very senior Republican whose seniority exempts him from some of the games of raising money for committee assignments. He told me, quote, "I don't like to shake people down," and when I asked him specifically about the tradition that members first learn about during Orientation Week, he said, quote, "that's an indictment waiting to happen."

Michael Beckel: My name is Michael Beckel, I'm the research manager at Issue One in Washington DC. Prior to joining Issue One, I worked as a reporter. Or for about a decade, focused mostly on tracking money in politics.

Weston Wamp: I brought in an expert to explain the nuts and bolts to you because honestly, it's so outrageous that I didn't want you to think I was exaggerating.

Michael Beckel: Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party lean on members of Congress to be telemarketers, to help them raise money. If you want to serve on an influential committee in Congress, the parties have essentially put a price tag on that position. If you want a leadership role on that committee, whether that's a subcommittee chairmanship or a full committee chairmanship, there's an even bigger price tag.

Weston Wamp: So here's what happens. Campaigns are expensive. We all know that and we covered it in the first episode. But because only about one out of five congressional districts is truly competitive --the result of gerrymandering, by the way, which we'll cover in a future episode-- campaigns in those 20% of districts become ridiculously expensive, and those races are the primary targets of the NRCC and the D triple C, the Republican and Democratic Congressional Committees, the seek to keep their party in power. That's their job, plain and simple.

With fewer districts that are really in play and those races being even more expensive, it's created an arms race of sorts between Democrats and Republicans, these two big national organizations. So how were these groups going to raise money?

Vic Fazio: As time went on and the pace of politics picked up, leaders really wanted to raise as much money as they could.

Weston Wamp: That was 20 year California Congressman Vic Fazio, who was the chairman of the D triple C in the early 90s. When a lot of folks say that this practice or tradition, depending on how you look at it, began in Washington. After leaving Congress, Fazio became one of Washington's most powerful and influential lobbyists, but he also became a reasonable voice on needed reforms in the Congress. And he agreed to sit down with me to tell me how he remembers all of this getting started.

Vic Fazio: I think Newt [Gingrich] was particularly focused on a new system that he put in place, which was term limits for chairman, so you'd only get served three terms.

Weston Wamp: You see, members of Congress value nothing more than their committee assignment. Speaker Newt Gingrich got that.

Vic Fazio: The competition, particularly on the democratic side, changed everything. When Democrats lost the majority in 94, the ability to raise money became much, much more limited, and so it was important at the time to get more money from members of the House Democratic Caucus. Often, it would be seen as related to the committees that they served on because every committee is not equal in terms of their ties to special interests, the importance to various elements of the business community, what have you.

Weston Wamp: You see, Fazio contends that even though Democrats might have originated the tradition, that it was actually new Speaker Newt Gingrich that threw fuel on the fire, possibly inadvertently, by putting term limits on committee chairs so that every six years, you would have a powerful committee chairmanship available to the best fundraiser.

Vic Fazio: As time went on, on the R side, the competition, frequently, every three terms, you know and turnover would occur. Your chairman would move to another committee, or maybe that give him a two or four year extension. But it became much more of a money chase.

Weston Wamp: Even worse, most members of Congress hate this. It makes the job, not the one they signed up for, but all about fundraising. They're already having to raise money for their own reelection back home, but now they've got an enormous amount of money that has to be raised specifically for their party's Congressional committee.

Depending on who you talk to, you're either going to hear this referred to as 'party dues' or 'dialing for dollars'.

We'll be right back after this short break.

 We're back. The questionable legalities of all of this has really caused this to be a bit like members of Congress behaving like they're telemarketers.

One of my favorite members of Congress is four term Republican Ted Yoho from Florida. He's the epitome of a citizen legislator. He was a large animal veterinarian who got elected in a big rural Florida district, and he just calls 'em like he sees 'em and nobody's been more outspoken on this subject than Congressman Yoho.

Ted Yoho: The NRCC should hire professional fundraisers. Let the members show up there if they want to, but they should not have to call them all these donors for money. And it's, a lot of times it's calling off their donor list and people you don't even know so you're cold calling. And that's it. To me, it's just a waste of time and it's degrading to the position that we're in. I think there's too much emphasis put on money versus the legislation

Weston Wamp: In our conversation, Yoho pulled the curtain back a little bit to reveal just how much time some members of Congress spend raising money for the parties.

Ted Yoho: I don't do the dialing for dollars over at the NRCC. I would be a UFO if I went over there, you know, they wouldn't know who I was. And I just say, I'm not, that's not my role as a Congressman. And I see too many of these people spending 10 to 20 hours a week going over there to raise funds for the NRCC.

Weston Wamp: Hang on, when Congressman Yoho says over there, what's he talking about? Over at the NRCC. Well, let's bring back Michael Beckel to explain what's going on here

Michael Beckel: Right now, members of Congress cannot raise money in their own offices. They can't be mixing that business of campaigning with their official businesses, but they walk across the street to buildings that are operated by the political party to sit in these little almost cubicle farms where you've got little rooms with a binder full of names and a staffer helping you make call after call after call, asking people to give money to the party, to help the party. And that counts towards your ability to be seen as a team player.

Weston Wamp: While the vast majority of members of Congress won't go on the record about any of this, some of Congressman Yoho's allies on the Freedom Caucus are the notable exceptions, though part of their objection is about how the parties spins the money. Here's White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney talking to a local TV news station in South Carolina.

Male Reporter: Congressman Mick Mulvaney and other members of the Freedom Caucus are convinced the National Republican Congressional Committee is only spending money to help the more moderate Republicans get elected, so they will not be paying their dues.

Mick Mulvaney: Mine are several hundred thousand dollars a year. Many of us have made a principal decision, not sort, you know, feed the hand that bites us.

Weston Wamp: What Mulvaney says, right there is virtually identical to what AOC said in a followup part of the interview that we played at the very beginning.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: And I was like, "Oh, but I, I am raising funds,". And they're like, "Oh, no, no, too, you know, to the D trip [D triple C] ." And I was like, "Oh, uh," but I had just gone through this year with where at the time the D trip had gone against other progressive candidates. And I was like, okay, well I remember leaving that and being like "I'm going to get put on some terrible committee".

Weston Wamp: And this, in and of itself, is a teachable moment because let's be honest, a lot of the anti-corruption crowds and just a lot of people in general thumb their nose at the Freedom Caucus. What as you're hearing, the old adage is true: politics makes strange bedfellows. Here's the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the Conservative wing of the Republican party agreeing on something.

Next up, Freedom caucus member Colorado Congressman and former prosecutor Ken Buck.

Ken Duck: The way you earn those dues, where you raise that money is you have events in Washington DC. You have receptions and the lobbyists representing special interests come to those receptions and donate money to you.

Now, if you don't vote with the lobbyist, lobbyists don't show up to those receptions. So it's a way to coerce members by having outrageous dues of $850,000 or 1.2 million. It's a way to coerce members to vote as a lobbyist and special interest wants you to vote.

Weston Wamp: Congressman Buck gives some helpful insights into Washington's fundraising culture and even how the nightlife is dictated, by the way that lobbyists and Congressmen and their staffs interact with the goal being raising money. But at the end of the day, there's a nuance to this dues process that I don't want you to miss.

And it's the part that I find the most concerning having grown up around the process, and if you're familiar with the Founding Fathers' absolute obsession with corruption, then the element of members of Congress being turned into professional fundraisers, that is the most concerning is this: first, members of Congress have to raise money for the political parties to get the committee assignment they need to do their jobs, to best serve their constituents.

Second, because you're raising money on behalf of the Party, they can ask special interest lobbyists to give even more than is allowed for their own campaigns. Because it's to the party, it's a whole new ask and a whole new check that can be tens of thousands of dollars. If we take a step back, one of the reasons that money in politics matters to begin with is the perception or the reality of corruption. And it's the reason that we have limits that any individual can only give a certain amount of money. And the Supreme court has upheld these limits because they give a, you know, reasonable degree of confidence that members of Congress aren't being completely bought off by one single donor.

And for the time being, and it changes every couple of years, that number is $2,800 per person per election. So that's $5,600 per election cycle. But the game that's been designed by the NRCC and the D triple C allows members of Congress in order to meet their dues levels, to stay in good standing on their committee to raise money in much, much larger quantities because individuals can give the National Party Committees tens of thousands of dollars.

And so the way this works is that members of Congress, I liken it to having a monkey on their back because they've got to raise a certain amount of money, and the way they're going to get that monkey off their back is to make asks, financial asks, as big as they possibly can while being within the letter of the law.

So the NRCC or the D triple C will host these massive banquet dinners and they'll tell members of Congress, you can sell tables for $25,000 and with that contribution, they can get their picture taken with the Speaker, the Majority leader, Minority leader. Depending on the circumstances of the party at that time, it's like a celebrity red carpet type of event within the Washington political world, and it's all designed so that members of Congress can call donors back home, who almost always have a specific interest in the committee that the member of Congress serves on, and they get to ask for 10 times or even more money then they normally can ask for.

That's why I think the outrage that's justified on this issue shouldn't miss the nuance that members of Congress are now raising more money, larger amounts of money from mega donors than they're ever allowed or supposed to be allowed to do so. While I had Congressman Yoko on the phone, I had to ask if he agrees that we're leaving members of Congress with a huge vulnerability.

Ted Yoho: No, I agree 100 percent. You know if you get a donor, they put in that kind of money, what kind of obligations is implied there? And the role of the legislators to be working on legislation.

Weston Wamp: I'm almost certain that the biggest concern here, because I've seen it play out myself, is the question of why are we allowing members of Congress to raise giant amounts of money from donors who almost always have a specific interest in their district or on the committee that they serve on?

Surely people see the conflict of interest here. Now, if we could just get every member of Congress to speak up like Ted Yoho, we might be able to fix this thing pretty quickly. I don't doubt at all that by this point you're growing cynical because you think this will never change. It's just one of the things that makes Washington "the swamp".

And I don't blame you, but I'm telling you, I've had so many conversations with members of Congress who feel trapped that I think with some public pressure, this could change. So now to the question of how do you fix it? Obviously you've got rank and file members of Congress who do not enjoy fundraising. They didn't sign up to be professional fundraisers. So at some point the critical mass simply could exist to change this, but how does that work exactly? Let's bring back Michael Beckel and he'll explain the litany of possible ways that we can fix this once and for all.

Michael Beckel: This can be fixed without new legislation. It doesn't take an act of Congress to stop this practice. The parties themselves could bring down that dues levels so they aren't so astronomical. The Republican party, the Democratic party, they could change their internal rules to dictate how they want to have members fundraising or not fundraising to take into account when they're making determinations about chairmanship decisions or subcommittee chair positions. All of these decisions are governed by party rules, that the parties themselves can control, and that just takes a conversation within the party to change.

Weston Wamp: But realistically, what if the parties are not willing to end the arms race? Aren't there other levers within Congress that are meant for things like this? How do you deal with clearly unethical behavior? Over time, this is what the ethics committee does, and as Beckel explains that might be the most logical avenue.

Michael Beckel: Another way that this issue could be tackled is through the ethics rules that govern both the House and the Senate. So House ethics rules could be changed without an active Congress or a new bill being signed into law, but the body itself could come together to put together a new ethics rules that cover this practice, to divorce some of the fundraising pressures from those leadership responsibilities and make sure that people are not perpetuating a pay to play system.

Weston Wamp: At the end of the day. I have no reason to believe that any of this will change until the American public expresses some outrage. But at that point, I'm telling you, there are so many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who are sick and tired of fundraising being their number one requirement. Upwards of 20 hours a week. This is time they should have spent legislating. I think all that has to happen here, because the incentives are already aligned, is for members of Congress to hear that folks back home have heard about how the game is played and we don't like it anymore than they do.

What we need here are for rank and file members of Congress to muster the courage to stand up to leadership and say, we hate our jobs. We hate raising money all the time. We came here to do the people's business just like you did 20 years ago before you were in leadership and the game had played to your advantage.

Next week you'll hear a story you'd expect about a member of Congress going to jail for spending campaign money on stuff for himself. But what you might not expect is how members of Congress are still doing the same thing today, but legally.

Thanks for listening to Swamp Stories presented by Issue One, the country's leading political reform organization that unites Republicans, Democrats, and independence to fix our broken political system.

Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better rate and review it on iTunes to help us reach more listeners, you can find out more at I'm your host Weston Wamp. Thank you to executive producer, Ethan Rome, producer William Gray and editor Parker Tan from Swamp Stories was recorded in Tennessee, edited in Texas, and can be found wherever you listen to podcasts.