Mick Mulvaney, interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told banking executives Tuesday that as a South Carolina congressman he always met with constituents. But he never met with out-of-town lobbyists, he said, unless they gave him campaign money — explaining why the bankers should push their agenda on Capitol Hill.
“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” said Mulvaney, who was a leading conservative in the House until President Trump tapped him as his budget director, a job he still holds. “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
Still, he said, the priority was given to local constituents. “If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talk to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions,” Mulvaney said in his address to the American Bankers Association, according to a transcript provided by the CFPB.
This is the textbook definition of “pay to play.” Let’s call it what it is: corruption. It’s not clear whether Mulvaney was shooting the breeze, or opening the bidding for donations from this lobbying group. Stranger things than soliciting a bribe in public have happened in this administration, to be certain. The public corruption section of the Justice Department should have a chat with the man who is tasked with protecting consumers(!).
It’s hard to imagine a senior official in another administration boasting about what is effectively extortion of lobbyists. He is certain that he would never be punished for confessing it was his practice to sell out democracy — and his constituents’ interests (if they didn’t coincide with the paying lobbyists). And that certainty is well-founded in an administration that regards ethical rules as nuisances to be avoided.
Democrats were outraged and vilified Mulvaney publicly. Republicans — you guessed it — have been mute. And the White House? One can almost hear Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s excuses — He was kidding! Fake news! Why aren’t you writing about the state dinner? (It is hard to decide what is the worse thing here — Mulvaney’s pay-to-play operation, his shamelessness in bragging about it or Republicans’ utter indifference to it.)
Democrats have few avenues to address this so long as they remain in the minority, although the next time he comes up to the Hill to testify about the budget Democrats should grill him about this. It is not clear whether the conduct Mulvaney brags about is illegal, but it surely is nauseating. My colleague James Hohmann observes, “To be clear, not all members of Congress operate this way. Many offices take pride in meeting with people no matter how much money they have given or might in the future. But Mulvaney’s comment appears emblematic of a mentality that pervades Trump’s orbit.”
It was the pay-for-play mentality that Trump ran against in 2016. His “drain the swamp” talk was, like so much else, nothing more than a bumper-sticker phrase aimed at gullible voters.
Voters can do something about the casual and omnipresent corruption when they go to the polls in November. By voting for the only party prepared to do appropriate oversight, they can ensure that serious investigative hearings are undertaken.
And this brings me to a final consideration. We’ve talked about impeachment only in the presidential context, but it is a tool available for other senior executive branch posts as well. If Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott J. Pruitt is still around, a Democratic-led House surely should investigate. If reports of pandemic corruption are corroborated, the House should move to impeach. The same should be true of a confessed pay-to-play operator. A full investigation with the power of subpoena is warranted.
If Trump won’t exercise any quality control in his appointments, the voters and Congress should do it for him and remove offending officials. That would keep Congress busy for a good long time.