The second season of Netflix’s House of Cards has been released, and of course, Washington has been all abuzz, with politicos eagerly reveling in the sheer and unabashed corruption and shady machinations of the fictionalized capital. But according to Peter Schweizer, Washingtonians need not go online to bask in fraud and vice: Day and night they are mired in it. His book Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets, purportedly details how elected officials, staff and Executive Branch employees have turned public service into a money-making scheme. Schweizer raises numerous good points, but unfortunately, the topic of corruption among the elected deserves a more serious discussion than the one provided by this book.
Schweizer’s thesis is very simple: Elected officials, rather than corporations or other special interests, instigate and perpetuate the corruption that goes on in Washington. He writes:
What we often think of as the bribery of our national leaders by powerful special interests in Washington may actually make more sense understood as extortion by government officials—elected and unelected. Far from being passive recipients of money and favors, they make it happen (2).
To support his thesis, he leads the reader through a stunning array of activities that do, indeed, make one cringe, at least upon a quick reading. For instance, he claims that congressional leaders engage in a practice of setting up “tollbooths”, where they will not allow votes on crucial legislation until after corporate representatives make significant donations to their campaigns or political action committees. Elsewhere he notes practices like congressional or White House staffers entering the private sector to earn very high salaries advising businesses on how to comply with the laws and regulations they helped write. Perhaps the tawdriest practice that Schweizer exposes is the use of funds from leadership PACs, which are theoretically supposed finance campaigns of fellow party members, to cover trips—for instance, to sporting events—and for other high-flying expenses that are well beyond the reach of the average American. These are only a handful of examples of practices he cites. Additionally, throughout the book he cites a number of different industry officials and even Members of Congress who testify to elected officials’ unrelenting quest for cash. Interestingly, he notes that in the early 20th century, it was business leaders who urged for campaign finance reform. Schweizer collects a variety of pieces of evidence and fits them together effectively to create an image of rank corruption.
Although Schweizer’s depiction of DC is quite dark, one still has to wonder how accurate it is. No doubt the many of the activities he cites in Extortion are unsavory, but some of his conclusions are questionable. For instance, corporate representatives will donate to a Member of Congress around the time the body is set to act on a bill. Schweizer comments on that situation:
But when corporate executives make donations on the same day at the same time, especially when a large group of them do so, it is likely there has been an organized solicitation (27).
It’s reasonable enough to infer that the donor desired to influence a Member, and it is certainly likely that there has been organized action. However, it is a bit of a stretch from that incident alone to say the Member or his agents instigated the transaction. Lobbyists and their assistants spend plenty of time tracking the course of a bill they are interested in; they do not need to be informed of it by a staffer. Why would it not simply be as likely that the corporate staff came together and decided on their own to donate, considering the pending legislation? Would be reformers can advocate changes without casting aspersions on either politicians or lobbyists. It is simple enough to say, “Donating on the day a relevant bill is before the House at least creates the appearance of impropriety, regardless of whoever initiated the transaction and regardless of the donor’s actual motives, so Congress should forbid the practice.”
Aside from leaps in logic, Schweizer is not above using questionable evidence to support an assertion, at least on one very glaring occasion. He writes that after the 2010 elections, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) exercised greater scrutiny over hedge funds, and he notes that this was after industry representatives began to provide more money to Republicans than Democrats. He writes:
Were these two events related? Possibly. In October 2010, President Obama had told an audience bluntly, “We are going to punish our enemies and we’re going to reward out friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.” (145).
This quotation was simply too spectacular not to check. Even if a politician intends to use the powers of his office to squish his rivals, he will not be stupid enough to say that to a whole audience. Flipping to the notes at the end, one sees that his comes from a New York Times article titled, “Obama Vows to Push Immigration Changes”. No mention of hedge funds anywhere. In fact, the full quotation from the article reveals that the “we” is not the Obama Administration, and the punishment has nothing to do with SEC investigations:
If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, “We’re going to punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,” if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s going to be harder and that’s why I think it’s so important that people focus on voting on November 2.
I do not generally defend President Obama or his Administration on practically anything, but it is absurd to use a quotation like this to insinuate that the Administration used SEC scrutiny to “punish” the hedge fund industry. The cause of promoting ethical governance will not be served by shabby advocacy.
Another important deficiency in the evidence used is that there are very few interviews with lawmakers. As it is, Schweizer’s citations only refer to a handful of interviews. It looks like only one was with a sitting Member of Congress. Since a number of Members are criticized it would have been especially helpful to hear them defend themselves directly. Of course we cannot know why Schweizer did not include such interviews. Perhaps he requested them but was denied. However, it remains an important omission.
Even if Schweizer’s assertions were supported by better evidence, it would still be inadequate because it is a little too simple in its analysis of how Washington works. After reading the book, one gets the sense that DC is only run by money. For instance, he writes:
Suppose you are the Speaker of the House and in your leadership PAC you currently have $2 million. You are trying to push some recalcitrant members from your party to join you on a vote for something. It is perfectly legal for you to meet with those members in your office and offer to transfer cash from your PAC to their campaign funds (68).
Speaker of the House John Boehner would probably just laugh at this. For much of his time as Speaker, he has been criticized, oftentimes unfairly, for being a weak leader, since he has from time to time lost key votes because “recalcitrant members” have remained recalcitrant. Money can’t always buy you love. Granted, here and there Schweizer concedes this. He cites, for instance, a study that found in 75 percent of cases, donations did not have a statistically significant impact on the way Members voted (62), and that “both sides have their true believers” (9). One nonetheless comes away thinking that Washington is all about the money—which, when you get down to it, it really isn’t. What drives DC is far more complicated: It is an odd mix of idealism, partisanship, altruism, ego, self-seeking, randomness—and yes, money.
Since money is a potent force in Washington, Extortion’s deficiencies are all the more frustrating. It is a missed opportunity, since the topic of government reform is highly worthwhile and always relevant. Citizens empower public officials to serve them faithfully, so it is always necessary to ensure that officeholders discharge their duties with the utmost care. On can only hope that when the citizens advocate for government reform they do so with the same due diligence.