Drain the Swamp

Rep. Thomas Massie Condemns ‘Pay-to-Play’ Rules in Congress

Current political power structures on Capitol Hill create perverse but strong incentives for lawmakers to serve special interests

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) has long favored draining the Washington swamp, but one issue that particularly concerns him is the way special-interest lobbyists — many of whom are themselves former members of Congress — have excessive influence over the lawmakers and the legislative process.

The nation’s capitol is often considered a hotbed for corruption, and President Donald Trump was elected largely on his promise to “drain the swamp.” That’s something Massie has been calling for since he was first elected to Congress in 2012.

“If you’re looking for waste, fraud and abuse in government, its kind of like flipping over rocks at a creek — there is a creature under every rock,” Massie told LifeZette. “The one thing I learned early on that shocked me the most, and still to this day bothers me and bothers just about everyone I tell, is the pay-to-play committee assignment process here.”

Massie explained that committee assignments in the House of Representatives are based on how much money GOP members can raise for the National Republican Congressional Committee and Democrats for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

This requirement forces lawmakers to raise more money than they need for re-election campaigns in order to get committee assignments that cover issues of more specific concern to their districts. Among the results is that the desirability of committees becomes based on how much money lobbyists are likely to give to members of the respective panels.

“It’s not a meritocracy; it’s a fundraising-tocracy,” Massie said. “You would think that if someone came here and they were a CPA, they would go on the budget committee or Ways and Means, the tax committee. If someone was involved in tax preparation or tax policy, wouldn’t they automatically go on the Ways and Means Committee? No, that’s not the way it works.”

Related: Draining the Swamp Starts with Stopping the Revolving Door

Massie added that he doesn’t necessarily disagree with what the contributions are used for, allowing the party to keep its majority. But his concern is the incentive structure, which puts lawmakers in a position of dependence on lobbyists for support.

“There is one small exception to that, which is still wrong in my opinion,” Massie said. “If you are in a swing district and you need a lot of money to get re-elected, they might put you on that committee so you can raise a lot of money because you’re going to be taking more money than you are contributing ultimately in that swing district.”

Massie notes that lawmakers in the know seek out help from lobbyists to get a committee assignment. Lobbyists with substantial sums to contribute often have a lot of pull with party leaders on both sides of the partisan aisle, so it helps an individual representative to have them in his or her corner.

Lobbyists also often seek to place lawmakers on particular committees so they will have someone there to advocate on behalf of their clients. Massie recalled that sometime after he first entered office, he was invited to meet with a lobbyist at the Capitol Hill Club.

“My chief of staff and I and my D.C. fundraiser met with this lobbyist and a couple of his friends,” Massie said. “He told me that I was different from the other congressmen here, that I was wasting my skills by being on the transportation committee and the oversight committee, that I should be on the ways and means committee.”

Massie said the lobbyist promised “that he and his friends would raise the money that would be required to get me on that committee. It was somewhat flattering to be propositioned in that way, but it also felt a bit like prostitution to me.”

Not surprisingly, the lobbyist courting Massie had clients with interests before the ways and means committee at the time. Massie said it wasn’t said outright, but it was obvious the lobbyist and his friends wanted an ally on the committee. Massie declined the offer and ended the conversation.

Related: The Political Money Keeping the Washington Swamp Full

Massie also worries about the abandonment of the regular appropriations process. Instead of writing, debating and voting on 13 major appropriation bills, Congress has for years simply put everything into one huge “omnibus” spending package.

Doing so puts lawmakers in a tough position because they can’t oppose specific provisions without opposing the whole thing, which also limits accountability and transparency when it comes to their constituents.

“Once you have an omnibus that has all of the funding for the government, that train is leaving the station and it’s going to reach its destination,” Massie said. “In other words, it’s going to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president because they’re also facing the same two bad choices in this process.

“Now that you have a locomotive that is leaving the station and going to make it to its destination, there is a temptation to attach more cars onto that train, and so they attach bills that actually change laws instead of just funding programs.”

In effect, the omnibus bill subverts the legislative process by killing the individual congressman’s accountability for how he or she votes on innumerable programs, funding proposals, and legislative initiatives.

Massie said Washington lobbyists are increasingly pushing for omnibus measures instead of standalone bills. They do so because that makes it easier for them to gain passage of a provision that benefits a client — without having to worry about it being debated openly in a committee hearing or on the House floor.

“I am not painting all lobbyists with the same brush, and I’m not blaming the lobbyists for how the system is set up,” Massie said. “It’s important for me to say that because I believe lobbyist have a legitimate function. If someone wants to hire someone to advocate for them, they should be able to do that.

“The problem is that leadership and the people who make the rules here in the House and then enforce those rules have grabbed too much power and have perverted the system and set up the incentives in the wrong way.”

(photo credit, article image: Thomas Massie, CC BY-SA 2.0, by Gage Skidmore)

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