Rep. Walter Jones, the maverick Republican from North Carolina, believes the influence of special-interest money in politics stops lawmakers from debating critical issues and draining the Washington swamp.
Jones believes the problem has grown since he was first elected to Congress in the Republican sweep of 1994. The trend of more money in politics gives special interests too much control instead of everyday Americans, he argues — and that this dictates the priorities of leaders in both parties, including Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
“What I’ve seen is the growing influence of money on policy,” Jones told LifeZette during an interview this week in his Capitol Hill office. “Mr. Ryan is out there, Ms. Pelosi is out there, raising millions of millions of dollars to help their party. I think Citizens United has changed the politics in Washington to make it worse.”
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a landmark case that found the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures by individuals, corporations, and other associations such as labor unions. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against such restrictions in its decision from January 2010, negating a major provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002.
Whether the exploding amount of money in politics is, as Jones believes, an obstacle to draining the Washington swamp or, as most conservative critics of campaign finance regulation contend, a reflection of the swamp’s illegitimate encroachment into every area of American daily life, there is no question that spending for votes and influence has become huge.
The most recent presidential election had candidates raising a total of $1.5 billion, not including the $618 million from super PACs supporting them, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton outspent then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump $564 million to $333 million.
“To me, the people don’t control Washington — their elected members are controlled by special interests,” Jones said. “For too long, I’ve seen money buy policy. I tell people back in the district, it’s almost like a house of prostitution, except it’s not dealing with sex, it’s dealing with money. And it gets worse every year.”
President Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” throughout the 2016 campaign, targeting the embedded special-interest power structures that many Americans believe run the federal government for their own benefit. Trump wasn’t the first to use the term, but it has become a catchphrase synonymous with him since the campaign.
Jones argues the influence of money even extends to issues as important as war. He notes that leadership won’t let lawmakers debate the future of Afghanistan and whether it’s worth continuing U.S. military involvement there. He introduced a bill alongside John Garamendi (D-Calif.) that would prohibit making funds available for activities in Afghanistan one year after enactment.
“We’ve written letter after letter, both parties, to Paul Ryan asking for a debate on why we are staying in Afghanistan,” Jones said. “That’s one thing about Paul Ryan — he pretty much controls what gets to the floor. The bill that John Garamendi and I put in about five or six months ago now, that said we should have a debate on the future of Afghanistan, we were pushing our colleagues to join us, even if they voted against us, just help us get a debate.”
Jones notes part of the problem is leadership not allowing congressional committees to function as they’re supposed to. House committees debate and vote on legislation within their policy area to decide whether to advance them to the floor for a full debate. Jones is concerned that process is being ignored when leadership decides what should be brought up.
“We’ve gotten to the point where instead of committees’ functioning the way they are supposed to, it’s more of one man, in this case Paul Ryan, dictating what gets to the floor,” Jones said.
Jones dismisses the argument that it’s not worth advancing legislation that is destined to receive a veto. He believes it’s important to debate these issues to show the American people there are still lawmakers fighting for them. It also makes clear where lawmakers really stand on issues.
Jones is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to abolish super PACs alongside Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Super PACs are independent political action committees that can legally raise unlimited funds so long as they don’t contribute or coordinate directly with parties or candidates. The lawmakers behind the lawsuit are hoping to bring their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jones notes that he votes the way he believes, whether that be conservative or something more moderate or libertarian. He introduced a bill alongside Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), another maverick legislator, aimed at ending a perk that provides former speakers an office for five years after leaving the role. The perk has grown over the past four decades to include office allowances, franking privileges, and staff help.