The problem isn’t that Mick Mulvaney wasn’t being honest. It’s that he was a little too honest.
Speaking to the American Bankers Association at a conference in Washington on Tuesday, Mulvaney, who is head of the Office of Management and Budget and interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, had advice for those gathered: If you want to play, you better pay.
“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” he said, according to The New York Times. “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.” He added, however, “If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions.”
Mulvaney’s spokesperson defended his remarks, saying his boss was making the point that constituents contacting their representatives was “more important than lobbyists and it’s more important than money.” But Mulvaney was making that point to a large conference of bankers, whom the CFPB ostensibly regulates, and advising them on how best to persuade his former colleagues on Capitol Hill to sharply curtail the powers of the agency he leads. In effect, he was mapping out two paths for purchasing influence: donating directly to legislators, and investing in a grassroots campaign to undermine the CFPB. Persuading Congress to act, he said, is among the “fundamental underpinnings of our representative democracy. And you have to continue to do it.” That’s a message that has one resonance when delivered to a town-hall meeting, and a rather different meaning when offered to a room full of corporate leaders and lobbyists.
It’s not exactly news that money makes Washington move, but in the past, members of the political establishment have at least tried to pretend that isn’t true. The surprise is that Mulvaney was willing to say so out loud, with reporters present.
Mulvaney previously represented South Carolina in the House, and he may indeed have listened to all constituent requests. Congress is designed to work on the constituent system, so that a citizen can ask his or her representative or senator for help. That works relatively well when, say, one needs help expediting a passport. But it’s not as effective if a citizen feels they’ve been bilked by a large and powerful corporation. Their representative might be sympathetic, or she might also have a lobbyist who’s shelled out thousands of dollars who will serve as a counterweight. Even if she is eager to help, she might not serve on a committee with relevant oversight, and she might not be in leadership—which means she might be unable to rally other members to do anything about it.
For that reason, it’s useful to have agencies that are responsive to the whole country. Like, say, the CFPB. Yet since taking over the bureau, Mulvaney has headed in the opposite direction, making it much harder for ordinary citizens to get attention. For example, as he pointed out to the ABA, he had cut a database of consumer complaints that the CFPB used to guide its enforcement actions.
“I don’t see anything in here that says I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government,” he said. In other words, ordinary citizens are important, but he is under no obligation to create a forum for them. He’s also not statutorily required to give speeches to the ABA. The bankers, however, got their access.
Mulvaney has pulled the bureau’s regulatory efforts back on multiple fronts, and asked for a budget of $0 for the year (while doling out fat raises to staffers). In one notable instance, he dropped a long-running case against payday lenders, then tried to claim that career staff had recommended the move. A spokesman later acknowledged to NPR that this was a lie. Mulvaney received $63,000 from payday lenders while in Congress. Once again, Mulvaney wasn’t really hiding anything: He promised to dismantle the CFPB, and that’s what he’s working to do.
By dismantling the watchdog and claiming that constituents can get an equal shake with the bankers to whom he was speaking, Mulvaney was offering a disingenuous claim. In the broader scope of his comments about pay-to-play, however, Mulvaney was telling it like it distressingly is. Politics is a caste system, with access available to the highest bidders and all others left to get by with what they can, and hope they have a member of Congress who sits on an influential committee. For Mulvaney, evidently, that is less a bug than a feature.
There was a time when such comments would have drawn rebukes, from the president or by members of Congress. Democrats will surely have plenty to say, but don’t expect much backlash from Republican legislators or from the president, even though Trump was labeled as a populist and ran for office promising to drain the swamp. Mulvaney isn’t trying to drain anything: He’s describing the contours of the swamp and offering the moneyed advice on how best to navigate their fanboat.
Mulvaney’s comments were quickly labeled part of a trend of Trump and his deputies “saying the quiet parts loud”—in other words, speaking publicly those politically unpalatable truths that are usually left unsaid, or said only behind closed doors. Trump himself said something similar, back in 2015. “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “As a businessman, I need that.” This was when Trump was still claiming to be self-funding his campaign, saying that this would guarantee his independence. Since then, however, he has embraced fundraising. Do wealthy donors get his ear on the policy front? A new government analysis of the tax cuts he pushed through in December finds a $17 billion break for millionaires.
Of course policymakers are most open and amenable to those who can pay for access. If Mulvaney weren’t so unbothered by that state of affairs, his comments to the ABA might almost be refreshing in their frankness.