Extortion: a book to surprise and enlighten you

Extortion: a book to surprise and enlighten you

Peter Schweizer’s new book makes sense of how Washington, D.C. operates

Peter Schweizer has written a book called Extortion: How Politicians extract your money, buy votes, and line their own pockets. The subtitle gives away the plot—but that’s all right because this is not fiction. This is all too real.

The central thesis is that we have been thinking about corruption in Washington, D.C. the wrong way. We have assumed that politicians become corrupt because they take bribes from “special interests.” Barack Obama ran in 2008 on the proposition that Washington was in the grip of special interests and that he was going to bring a whole new way of governing to Washington.

The Obama administration has just substituted one set of special interests for another. What went wrong?

Nothing. It all went according to script.

The first thing that we have to understand is that Washington does not operate according to principle. Policies and laws to enact those policies do not flow from principle: they flow from money.

We’ve seen books on corruption before. In 2009, Michelle Malkin wrote about the Democrat Party machine behind Barack Obama in Culture of Corruption. That described the “who” on one side of the aisle. Ian Murray in 2011 wrote Stealing you blind. Murray showed how an out-of-control bureaucracy has expanded their numbers and raised their salaries and benefits. Schweizer did the same for politicians in his 2011 book, Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friend Get Rich off Insider stock Tip, Land Deals and Cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison.

This time, in Extortion Schweizer brings it all together. What if it is not a case of outside interests corrupting politicians, but rather politicians themselves being the source of the corruption? What if it is not a case of bribery but of extortion?

With example after example, Schweizer describes how the money flows in Washington and how the politicians control those flows. If Washington, D.C. were run by the Mafia, it wouldn’t look or feel very much different than it does today. The main difference, Schweizer says, is that what the Mafia does is illegal; what the politicians do is legal.

Researching campaign finance reports and disclosure statements, Schweizer describes how it works. For example, when a bill is proposed, there are people and organizations both for and against it. Some stand to gain and others to lose. Congressmen’s legal and policy staff are in contact with the fundraising staff. The fundraisers know who to hit up for contributions—sometimes working both sides of the issue for campaign contributions. This is called “milking” the issue and when they can milk both sides, it’s “double milking.”

That’s just one way. Hiring relatives on staff is another one; getting lobbying firms to hire relatives is another. While campaign committees generally have rules against using money for purely personal expenses, leadership PACs don’t. If a politician gets defeated for higher office, he or she can always go join a Washington lobbying firm. At one point Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Tom Daschle worked for the same one.

This is not a book bashing one party over the other. Both parties work in the same way and Schweizer gives examples from both sides. In fact, he rarely refers to parties except as identifiers for individual politicians. They’re all part of the Permanent Political Class.

That class isn’t limited to officeholders. Congressional staff engage in the game as well. They write complex bills such as Dodd-Frank and then go to legal firms to “cash out” by providing advice on how to comply with those bills.

In 2009, the Tea Party criticized Congress for not reading the healthcare bill. Rep. Rangel said that it was an open secret that Congress didn’t read any of the bills. Indeed, reading the bills might be of little or no help. They’re long and complex on purpose. Only the people who wrote them have any idea what’s in them.

When you read this book, several questions that don’t seem to have clear answers become clear.

The first is why the Republican Establishment hates the Tea Party. In the Tea Party world, principles matter. The people who come to Washington with ideas of fiscal reform or of reforming the federal government itself are messing with the system. Schweizer shows clearly the system they’re threatening—and how the system ensnares new congresspeople.

The second is why Congress won’t reform itself. Congress went through a series of reforms in the late 1970s following the House banking scandal and we’re right back where we were then—if not worse.

In his final chapter, Schweizer gives some prescriptions for reform. The bottom line, he says, is that politicians are just ordinary people who look out for their own interests and should be subject to the same kinds of rewards and punishments that the rest of us are.

Conservatives looking for the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan are just as wrong as liberals worshiping at the Altar of St. Obama.

It is well worth your time to read this.

Extortion: How Politicians extract your money, buy votes, and line their own pockets.
Peter Schweizer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013