“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….” sounds an awful lot like a public official making a confession about his own corruption. This admission to what appears to have been a crime, or at least what should have been a crime, comes from former US Congressman, current acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and current Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney’s scandalous remarks were part a speech he delivered at an American Bankers Association conference where he also discussed his desire to eliminate public access to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s online database of customer complaints against banks. While defenders of Mulvaney point to his broader message of civil engagement, it is both troubling and a clear example of wrongdoing.
Not only was Mulvaney encouraging banks to use their wealth to buy access to public officials and undue influence over government, he was acknowledging that he actually sold access to his office. To his credit, Mulvaney also claimed that he would see his own constituents, whether or not they contributed to his campaign, and rightfully encouraged bankers to get involved in government. Civil engagement does not, however, mean contributing money to someone’s campaign. Getting involved means offering one’s expertise to the legislative process. Giving money is something entirely different than civil engagement. Donating money to a politician’s campaign or paying a lobbyist to push the interests of an industry over those of the Americans People is an act of bribery. Giving accessing to someone, because they gave money, is purely an act of correction. By listening primarily to those lobbyists who gave him money, Mulvaney was committing an act of correction. By suggesting others do the same, he was soliciting bribes on behalf of his fellow public officials.
Unfortunately, Mulvaney is the rule and not the exception. In many respects, he was just being honest about what happens far too often in government. Clearly, he needs to resign and charges need to be brought against him after a thorough instigation of his present and past encounters with lobbyists, but he is not the only public official who needs investigated. Donald Trump and the Trump Administration are steeped in conspiracy. It is not necessarily because the Trump Administration is exceedingly corrupt. It is because Trump creates an environment where people feel safe enough to act on their corrupt impulses and speak freely about what their wrongdoings. Although Mulvaney’s desired policy changes at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would essentially eliminate financial protections for consumers and reduce transparency, his self-incriminating, poorly-chosen words invite greater scrutiny and, therefore, broader transparency in government.
With that in mind, transparency and scrutiny are important, but what truly matters is the consequences. A public official has bluntly said he gave access to his office to those who gave him money. If Mulvaney is not held accountable by the American People, by his supervisor President Donald Trump, and by the US legal system, Mulvaney will be rewarded for both his honesty and his corruption. Enabling Mulvaney’s transparent corruption will, in turn, encourage corrupt officials to engage in even more corruption. It will also encourage those who view donations and other forms of indirect graft as their golden ticket to government to engage in more brazen examples of bribery more often. Lacking any component of government able, and willing, to address special interest corruption will allow corruption to fester and the American People’s interest to be further neglected.
Voters send their representatives to Congress, so they have representation in government. They do not send their representatives to give representation to those who pay for it. If businesses within industries and other special interest groups desire to have their voices heard or wish to contribute to the legislative process in order to make legislation more effective and less harmful, they need to do so in a more transparent fashion. They can lobby Congress as a whole, but their arguments need to be part of a public debate, any legislative proposals they offer need to be accessible to the public, and their lobbying activities need to be fully transparent. Civil engagement is essential to proper governance. Civil engagement on behalf of experts is especially important. Special access, particularly that which involves some form of quid-pro-quo, simply transforms government into a protection racket.
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