House Dems promise to end big-money influence, then run to special-interest receptions

Every new House Speaker promises a fresh start in Congress, and Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiManchin cast doubt on deal this week for .5T spending bill Obama says US 'desperately needs' Biden legislation ahead of key votes Congress shows signs of movement on stalled Biden agenda MORE was no different Thursday, even in her second go-round in the job.

The Democratic House majority will take dramatic steps “so that people can have confidence that government works for the public interest, not the special interests,” Pelosi vowed during her acceptance speech.

To accentuate her point, House Democrats crafted their first piece of legislation, House Resolution 1, to rid politics of the corrupting influences of big money and special interests, among other things.


But just a few hours after Pelosi's remarks, she and other Democrats — many of them first-time lawmakers — hustled off to receptions that are the epitome of the special-interest favor-currying system that has infected Washington for so long. For their part, Republicans did the same.

Take, for example, Reps. Debra Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sharice DavidsSharice DavidsNorth Dakota Republican latest House breakthrough COVID-19 case Texas House Republican tests positive for coronavirus in latest breakthrough case Katie Hill launches effort to protect Democratic majority in House MORE (D-Kan.), the first Native American women elected to Congress. The two were saluted Thursday night at a hotel reception complete with color guard, poetry and other pageantry of American tribal heritage.

The invitation, however, did little to mask a true benefactor of this event: the tribal casino industry.

The official invite sent out in late December included a “thank you to our sponsors” section, complete with logos from such special interests as the Indian Gaming Association, the Mohegan Tribe that operates one of the East Coast’s swankiest casinos in Connecticut, and the Agua Caliente tribe that operates one of the West’s ritziest casinos in California.

The program was designed to reinforce the importance of casino gaming as well, according to the invite. Even the poet for the opening reception hailed from a tribe that runs a casino.

And the invitation’s bio for Haaland included this unmistakable nugget: “She is the former chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, where she directed the business operations, strategies and initiatives of the second-largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico.”

At least six other House Democrats were invited to the program. It would be hard for anyone to have left the event without recognizing tribal casinos were involved.

Pelosi herself was caught in the gap between promise and practice, too.

Hours after her speech, Pelosi attended a Thursday evening event feting the new Democratic women lawmakers of the 116th Congress.

The host? The largest and most successful political action committee for progressive women.

Alex DeLuca, press secretary for Emily’s List, confirmed to me that the PAC sponsored and paid for the bash.

Emily’s List has collected and spent tens of millions of dollars over the past two decades to elect pro-choice women, including at least $47 million in the 2018 midterms that saw a historic number of women win races nationwide in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.

Thursday’s calendar had many such celebrations at hotels, museums and other venues outside the Capitol.

There’s nothing illegal about special interests throwing such celebrations outside the Capitol complex. In fact, they have become routine every two years, no matter whether Republicans or Democrats are running the show.

And let's not forget that President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE raised a record $107 million to fund parties and celebrations around his inauguration.

Scores more congressional swearing-in parties were held inside official Capitol buildings on Thursday. Under congressional ethics rules, such events can’t be underwritten directly by lobbyists or special interests because it would be considered impermissible gifts, according to an ethics warning issued in December.

But lawmakers were allowed to use leftover campaign funds from their last election — with one caveat. “Such events should not be campaign or political in nature, such as limiting the invitee list to include only campaign contributors,” the ethics warning said.

So, essentially, political money underwrote those parties, too.

A review of more than two dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers’ parties inside the Capitol complex found many connections to special interests, including RSVP addresses controlled by lobbying firms and big corporate interests.


H.R. 1’s promise, as Democrats described it, is to lessen lawmakers’ reliance on special-interest money by, among other things, offering congressional candidates taxpayer money in the form of matching funds for small donations they collect.

But it’s important to note that nothing in the bill’s promised language so far would put an end to the special-interest hobnobbing witnessed on the first day of the new Congress.

Likewise, it’s important to recognize the bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.

Absent the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE of Arizona, the GOP doesn’t have many champions of reining-in big money. Most Republicans subscribe to the theory of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision declaring that free speech protects the free flow of political dollars, and that the best panacea is simply disclosure.

When I came to town three decades ago and started my Washington journalism career, I began as a campaign-finance reporter for The Associated Press. Back then, big donors topped out in the “Team 100” category, or at $100,000 each.

Today, big donors easily can top out in the millions of dollars each election, a stake that secures influence and access in the months that ensue.

And that brings us back to how the new Congress started.

There’s the promise of H.R. 1, but the practices observed Thursday by the bill’s Democratic sponsors and Republican antagonists alike would suggest there’s little danger anytime soon for the big-money system in politics.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill’s executive vice president for video.