The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mick Mulvaney personifies pay-to-play

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Capitol Hill on April 18. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

THE DEPTH of cynicism expressed by former South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney is breathtaking. Mr. Mulvaney, now director of the Office of Management and Budget, as well as interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told a group of bankers on Tuesday that he had a specific litmus test for lobbyists who wanted to see him while he served in the House, from 2011 to 2017. The rule was: He would not meet those who did not make campaign contributions to him, and he might meet those who did. Mr. Mulvaney appears to feel no shame about it.

Mr. Mulvaney told the American Bankers Association, according to the New York Times: “We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. 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.” He added that South Carolina constituents would always get through the door. How generous.

Allow us to sound quaintly old-fashioned for a moment and recall the selfless reasons that people run for and serve in Congress: to solve concrete problems and repair injustices, to carry forward important causes, and to represent the vast range of constituencies that make American politics so textured and sturdy. Beyond a doubt, campaign contributions grease the wheels of this system and, when overdone, often have an unsavory impact. But Mr. Mulvaney’s behavior seemed to go even further than simply responding to donors. He erected a kind of tollgate for contributions at his House door, in the worst tradition of pay-to-play sleaze.

The underlying principle, that politicians are to be bought and sold, has been repeatedly articulated by President Trump, despite his campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” of special interests in Washington. Mr. Mulvaney’s confession parallels precisely the mind-set of the president. “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Mr. Trump told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “As a businessman, I need that.” Later that year, he elaborated: “I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”

Should Mr. Mulvaney be praised for exposing a dirty secret? We don’t think so. His comments seem to normalize quid pro quo behavior. We’ve heard from other lawmakers for years how fundraising has become an albatross around their highest ambitions for public service. If Mr. Mulvaney’s comments have any larger lesson, it is not that everyone does it, but that Congress ought to face up to a challenge of campaign finance reform it has long neglected. At the very least, Congress should eliminate the loopholes that allow rivers of campaign cash to flow as dark money, the origins secret from the public. They could call it the Mick Mulvaney Open Door Act.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Mulvaney could at least feel some shame

The Post’s View: How dark-money donors find accomplices in the government

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Don’t let big and dark money ‘drown out the truth and drown out your voice’

Catherine Rampell: How Mick Mulvaney is dismantling a federal agency

James Downie: Why Mick Mulvaney is the perfect scoundrel for Trump