Time for Washington to end the tradition of 'pay to play' politics

Time for Washington to end the tradition of 'pay to play' politics
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Congratulations, Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE. You put in stark relief what most Americans know in their gut: There’s a broken, “pay to play’ system in Washington. But it would be wrong to say you are the problem and leave it at that. That’s not really the case.

Nor should this “wretched” state of affairs be laid at the feet of lobbyists. The right for a redress of grievances is enshrined in our Constitution, and it’s an important right to exercise. There’s no constitutional imperative that requires lobbyists to be at the center of the current system that is up to its eyeballs in transactional giving.

I should know, I have been a registered lobbyist for decades. Even the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics, a trade group for lobbyists, bristled at Mulvaney’s candid admission, saying, “This should not be be the norm or how ‘business’ is done in Washington.”

Mulvaney’s words, “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,” are emblematic of a larger sickness of a “pay to play” system of cash exchanging hands for access and policy outcomes. Members of Congress, especially those who aspire to leadership positions, spend too much time soliciting campaign contributions, and they hate it.

Average citizens, rightly so, have little to no confidence in our institutions, especially Congress. This isn’t really working for anyone except for those few moneyed interests who can play and win at the game, and the members of Congress who help perpetuate this distorted version of representing their constituents.

Sure, we can lay much of this at the feet of a Supreme Court that almost blesses this “pay to play” system, where ingratiation and buying access are not considered corruption. If anyone needed another reason to hate the Citizens United decision, the court’s five vote majority that essentially gave constitutional absolution to buying and selling access is one more.

But it’s not enough to merely react in horror to the fact that someone dared to say what we already knew to be true. If Mulvaney’s comments can spur bipartisan outcry, so too can they jumpstart bipartisan solutions. The House and Senate could each enact a new rule that would simply state, “Members of Congress may not require campaign contributions from persons as a precondition to meeting with a member.”

No need for a president’s signature. No need for Supreme Court review. For even more teeth, Congress could pass laws prohibiting “pay to play” and transactional giving. In 2016, members of the ReFormers Caucus, which includes former lawmakers, governors, ambassadors and Cabinet officials from both parties, agreed to a framework for returning government to the American people.

One of its five solutions is reducing “pay to play” politics, because in a democracy, making laws should be based on the power of ideas, not simply the size of the checkbook or moneyed interests behind them. These solutions aim to fix a system that leaves lawmakers too reliant on “fundraising at all costs” politics, update lobbying disclosure laws, and recommend actions we can take right now to change the system Mulvaney helped publicize.

Issue One consistently works with both Republicans and Democrats, former and current, and ardent progressives and staunch conservatives in Congress to find commonsense solutions to these problems and restore faith in our government. Our Founders would be appalled at how our government is operating, according to the average voter.

Until these and similar reforms are enacted, faith in Congress will remain abysmal across party lines, fear for the future of our democracy will continue to soar, and the Mick Mulvaneys of the world will continue to preserve a system where, if you wanna play, you gotta pay.

Meredith McGehee is the executive director of Issue One. She worked on Capitol Hill and advocated for democracy reforms for more than 30 years. She also serves as a strategic adviser to the Campaign Legal Center.