By April 2018, Mick Mulvaney was already a highly influential figure in the Trump administration, leading both the White House budget office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It was against this backdrop that Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman, spoke to a group of banking industry executives and offered them some guidance on the keys to lobbying success.
"We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress," Mulvaney said. "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."
As we discussed at the time, cynics who assume the worst of federal officials often suspect members of Congress sell access to lobbyists, but it was exceedingly rare to hear a prominent politician brag about such casual corruption in public. Mulvaney, ostensibly in a role to regulate financial industry excesses, advised bankers on how to buy politicians' attention.
All of this came to mind this morning after seeing this Wall Street Journal report on Capitol Hill's reactions to corporate political action committees scaling back in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Aides to some Republicans lawmakers say they are considering punishing the companies that halted PAC donations by banning their lobbyists from coming to their offices to advocate on legislation. "The way these PACs have tried to so quickly distance themselves is going to have a lasting impact on our relationship with corporate America," said one congressional aide who works for a lawmaker who voted to challenge the election.
A little recent history is probably in order.
Within a few days of the deadly insurrectionist attack on the Capitol, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Marriott International were among the prominent companies that said they would pause political contributions to congressional Republicans who voted to reject President Joe Biden's victory. Many others soon followed.
While some corporate giants said they were cutting off financial support to both parties, NBC News reported overnight that Dow Chemical, American Express, Airbnb, Mastercard, and Commerce Bank, among others, said they will not donate to lawmakers involved in the push to deny Biden the presidency. Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal, which owns MSNBC (my employer), also said that it would suspend contributions "to those elected officials who voted against certification of the electoral college votes."
The list of companies continued to grow, and as recently as last week, Google also reportedly ended campaign contributions to Republicans who voted against certifying Biden's victory.
Not surprisingly, GOP leaders took note. Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican strategist, told the New Yorker last week that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in particular, was "scared to death" of corporate America's response to the attack. Stevens added, "Supporting the overthrow of the U.S. government isn't good for business."
But today's WSJ report suggests there's been a shift in posture. Instead of looking for ways to get back into corporate donors' good graces, Republicans are making threats. If businesses want to be heard in these lawmakers' offices, they better be prepared to pay for the privilege.
The message from these Republicans is not subtle: access and influence are for sale, and Corporate America should start writing checks accordingly.
I'm starting to get the impression that the swamp has not been drained, and corrupt practices like these are routine enough to be described in a matter-of-fact sort of way.
Postscript: As the WSJ article makes clear, Democrats have plenty of concerns about the loss of PAC contributions, too, especially given the fact that they're being cut off for no apparent reason. But while there's nothing good about either party looking to Corporate America for financial support, there's nothing in the reporting that suggests Democrats are exploring "banning their lobbyists from coming to their offices to advocate on legislation," unless corporate PACs start writing more checks.