Today we begin with an extraordinary interview with a sitting member of Congress. It will make you mad but it's something you should hear. Republican Ken Buck is speaking out of school about the shocking, transactional nature of Washington politics. About party elites he says, "live like kings and govern like bullies." And he's lifting the curtain on why he says nothing gets done in Congress, describing collusion between Democrats and Republicans to fleece taxpayers on behalf of special interests.
Rep. Ken Buck: The game here is not to take a tough vote. Nobody wants to take a tough vote, Democrats and Republicans, there’s a quiet conspiracy going on that ‘If you don’t make me take a tough vote I won’t make you take a tough vote.’
A “tough vote,” says Congressman Ken Buck, means anything that cuts spending or programs that benefit political and corporate interests.
Rep. Buck: And the result is that the ability to cut federal programs or to reduce spending in other ways, or to get our tax structure under control- simplify the tax structure is very, very difficult. And that results in higher spending.
He says it’s why Congress consistently spends wildly more money than it receives from taxpayers: six hundred billion dollars last year alone. Why the federal debt has been allowed to balloon to record levels: the U.S. owes about $20 trillion dollars it doesn’t have on hand.
Sharyl Attkisson: Is there an element of that Democrats and Republicans may appear to disagree with things in public and yet privately agree because sometimes they cater to the same interests?
Rep. Buck: Sure, I think Democrats and Republicans disagree on some social issues and make a big deal out of that, and disagree on some other major issues. But for the most part, there’s agreement behind-the-scenes not to make waves and to get things done quietly. Not good things, but things that involve spending more money. If I scratch your back you’ll scratch my back.
Sharyl Attkisson: Is what you describe what some Americans might call ‘the establishment’?
Rep. Buck: Absolutely. The ‘establishment’ are the Republican leadership and the Democrat leadership getting along and pretending not to. But clearly getting along.
A former federal prosecutor, Buck has been in Congress less than three years.
He says his education from Washington D.C.’s school of hard knocks began right after his election during his orientation trip to the Capitol.
Rep. Buck: And that’s when a lot of the rules were explained to us about the dues to the NRCC other requirements.
He was stunned, he says, to find the NRCC-- the National Republican Congressional Committee-- just like its counterpart for Democrats, requires hefty party dues, especially if members hope to aspire to meaningful positions.
Rep. Paul Ryan: Talk about a record $30.1 million right here in this room. Give yourself a big round of applause.
Rep. Buck: It’s mildly offensive to think that to serve on a committee in Congress you need to pay a private political organization dues, and that’s what they were asking for.
Sharyl Attkisson: Did you have any idea before you were elected that that was the case?
Rep. Buck: I did not know that there were mandatory dues here, no.
Sharyl Attkisson: How did they tell you?
Rep. Buck: Ah, well it’s not a big secret. They have a big chart in the National Republican Congressional Committee offices, and you can see everybody’s name and the dues that they owe and how much they’ve paid.
Sharyl Attkisson: What was going through your mind when you started to hear this news?
Rep. Buck: Well, as Freshmen we have to raise $200,000 and that’s a lot of money. You know I just finished campaigning and raising money, and now I had to go back to donors and ask them for money again.
Buck reveals the unwritten rules and outlines the allegations in his book: “Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse than You Think.”
Rep. He says to meet fundraising quotas, members of Congress spend hour upon hour of public work time asking for money from the very interests they’re supposed to oversee, ending up beholden to them instead of the public at large.
Sharyl: For people who really have no idea how things work up here, can you tell us how the special interests and corporate interests, for example, actually influence members? How does that happen?
Rep. Buck: It starts with committee assignments. If you’re on the transportation and infrastructure committee, the transportation bill will come before your committee and all over town there will be receptions and the members on the transportation committee will be invited to those receptions, expected to attend those receptions and receive donations as a result of that. They know the easy money, the low-hanging fruit, is gonna be at receptions that are given right before a major piece of legislation goes to committee. Everything is called ‘across the street’ because at the Capitol behind me, you can’t accept money there. You can’t give money there, but once you walk across the street then the bags open up.
Sharyl Attkisson: Restaurants around here?
Rep. Buck: Restaurants, the Republicans, the Capitol Hill Club has a lot of different receptions and dinners.
Industries paying for those receptions and dinners include tobacco, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, TV broadcasting, beer and wine, defense and Hollywood. Democrats have their own fundraising hangout nearby: The National Democratic Club.
Rep. Buck: I’ve attended receptions where I’ve had 10, 12 corporations represented and they have made their case to me on why they need me to vote a certain way on a piece of legislation. And I know that if I accommodate them, I will have a reception later on where they will support me.
Sharyl Attkisson: You’re describing an entire system where almost every consideration that ought to be for constituents is instead about special interests and corporate interests and donations.
Rep. Buck: It surprised me when I got here and I’ve been involved in politics since I was a teenager, and getting to this place is really shocking. To see the influence that money has in politics.
Early on, Buck challenged GOP leadership on a vote he felt would give President Obama too much power on trade issues. Republican leaders retaliated by trying to oust him as president of his freshman class. But he went on a public offensive and survived. He says he’s watched colleagues get punished for doing what they think is right instead of what party bosses demand; booted from committee positions and even denied dining room privileges.
Rep. Buck: The incentive structure right now is to vote for more money. You never vote for less money, because someone’s gonna get mad if you vote for less money. And so as long as the American public doesn’t stand up and demand that members of Congress are accountable, Congress will continue acting the way it does.
Sharyl Attkisson: Do you think a lot of people come to Washington really hoping it will be different and planning to work for their constituents and just find out it can’t be done?
Buck: I absolutely think most members come here with the best intentions. And I think within a year or two they realize that there is no hope of changing this place. And a lot of them leave fairly early on. Others become disillusioned and some others just settle into the swamp and enjoy it.
Sharyl Attkisson: I’ve not heard another sitting member of Congress talk about these things. What happens to you now because of this?
Buck: You know I didn’t come here with any friends, Sharyl, and I’m not leaving with any friends and I’m okay with that. I didn’t come here to make friends. And so, if I’m gone in a couple of years, I did what I came here to do and that’s hopefully make Americans aware that this place is broken.
Buck says solutions include requiring a balanced budget meaning Congress wouldn't be able to spend more money than it has and they'd be forced to make the tough choices they now avoid and term limits to restrict the number of years people can serve in Congress.