April 26, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Mick Mulvaney Shows Why GOP Corruption Is a Win-Win

Voters might punish GOP politicians in November for allowing corruption to flourish in the open, but the Republican Party won't suffer.

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Mick Mulvaney, the head of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, pwned himself Tuesday in a speech to the American Bankers Association in Washington. Here is the part that’s sparking controversy:

“What you do here matters. We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you. If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception regardless of the financial contributions.”

The reaction so far has been uniform. This is textbook graft. As CNN’s Chris Cillizza pointed out:

“What Mulvaney is saying is the literal definition of pay-to-play politics. If you are a lobbyist willing to make a campaign contribution to Mulvaney, you had better chance of getting an audience with him. Full stop.”

Now, before you start looking on the otherwise silly and embarrassing Chris Cillizza as an arbiter of ethical governance, I’d like to make a few key points.

  1. Giving money to politicians isn’t, in and of itself, a reason why “most people hate the nation’s capital,” as Cillizza asserted blindly. It’s a quite practical way for elected officials to prioritize what special-interests are worthy of their limited time, focus and attention.

  2. We must ask: who’s paying to play? Do group interests line up with majority constituent interests? I’m pretty sure Mulvaney’s supporters, when he was a South Carolina congressman, would have seen donations by the National Rifle Association as jim-dandy.

  3. People tend to decry “pay-for-play” when the pay comes from interest groups they oppose for whatever reason. A conservative might not bat an eye about NRA or coal-industry cash, but from the hilltops might howl with the devil in the pale moonlight if it’s from Planned Parenthood or billionaire George Soros.

Does the above mean corruption is relative? Not at all. The question should be: what’s important to the few as opposed to the many? In other words, do the views of the minority—lobbyists, interest groups, cranky old billionaires—defeat those of the majority thanks to the former buying votes while the latter spectates? That’s when corruption becomes detrimental to democracy.

But Cillizza isn’t entirely wrong. Even the appearance of corruption has to be taken seriously, because even the appearance of it can undermine trust in democracy. Given that trust is central to seeking the consent of the governed, elected officials must take steps to avoid appearing corrupt even if, as The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch put it, they are engaging in “honest graft.”

Mulvaney’s problem goes behind appearances, though. Not only was he giving bankers free tips about pay-for-play, he was talking to them as the head of the CFPB, which is supposed to protect against Wall Street banks. Moreover, he gave these remarks in the wake of news reporting that he’s trying to dismantle the agency by making it more vulnerable to political winds.  

As the New York Times reported, Mulvaney has “frozen all new investigations and slowed down existing inquiries by requiring employees to produce detailed justifications” and “scaled back efforts to go after payday lenders, auto lenders and other financial services companies accused of preying on the vulnerable.”

A final grim thought: Voters might punish Republicans in November’s midterms for allowing corruption to flourish in the open, but the party as an institution will not suffer, because the GOP benefits from voter distrust. It benefits in two ways.

  1. While in power, the Republicans smash and grab, rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Then …

  2. when out of power, they hammer the Democrats on ideological grounds for reforming government in order to prevent the Republicans from behaving corruptly.

In other words, government action is no solution to social problems according to the Republicans, and they are going to sabotage any effort to prove them wrong.  

I see no end to that cycle as long as we think of all “pay-for-play” is always bad all the time. The details matters, and they should matter most in a healthy democracy.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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