Congress, Donald Trump is on to you. He knows you’re taking campaign donations and he knows you are doing something in return for the cash.
He has called super PACs “the biggest disgusting joke you’ve ever seen” and pointed to Capitol Hill, the White House and his fellow candidates as exhibits A, B and C of the corrupting influence of money in politics. He knows how bad it is, he says, because he’s the one who has been writing the checks.
“I used to be a businessman and when they call, I give,” he told the Republican debate audience in August. “And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system.”
Supporters at Trump rallies point again and again to the billionaire’s self-financing of his own campaign as a reason for supporting him. He is his own man, they tell me. Not like the other candidates. Not like Congress. They’re all “bought and paid for.”
Like a lot of things Trump says, there is a piece of the truth buried under his bombast. To see how right or wrong Trump is on this one, I spoke with veteran lobbyists, fundraisers and senior Hill staffers. I promised them total anonymity so that they could speak openly about what the campaign finance system in Washington looks like from the inside out.
The answer is that Trump is partially right, and I think most people in Washington know it. Giving money to a candidate or member of Congress gets a donor something in return. Whether it’s face time at fundraising events, returned calls from congressional staff, or a meeting with the member of Congress to make their case, donations still buy access.
“You know who the donors are, and of course you’re going to meet with them,” a former chief of staff told me.
And the more money a donor gives, the more access they’ll get, either at fundraising events in Washington or more extensive weekend getaways designed specifically for “friends” with deep pockets to rub elbows with members of Congress.
Lobbyists, donors, campaign staffers and Hill staffers also all said that businesses based in a member’s district or state were equally as important as donors, if not more so, in nearly all offices, and that no amount of money from a donor would entice most members to engage in a quid pro quo.
“You know the rules and you’re careful about it," one lobbyist said. "I would say 99% of the lobbyists in town don’t expect anything in return. Maybe 99% is too high, but it’s just part of the game that everybody plays. The members, the run-of-the-mill lobbyists don’t feel beholden in any way.”
At the very least, phone calls from a donor will be returned. “If you’re not getting a response, you go to the chief of staff. They should be savvy enough to know what happens,” a D.C.-based lobbyist told me. “If that’s not the case, you can go to the fundraiser you worked with when you gave $1,000 and complain to them. If the fundraiser is smart, and they want you to be a return customer, they’ll go to the chief of staff and say, ‘This guy has been helpful to the boss and he’s is not getting much love from the office.’”
But there is still a big difference between access and results. “If it’s ultimately not good for the boss, we’re not doing it,” a senior staffer said. But a smart donor or lobbyist is probably giving to someone inclined to agree with them anyway. “It’s extremely unlikely that any contribution is ever going to sway a member,” a lobbyist told me. “You’re typically giving money to people who are already helpful. It’s more of a reward than an inducement to change behavior.”
Without an exception, everyone I spoke with complained about the system as it is. Hill staffers lamented the amount of time fundraising takes away from regular work in Washington, often two to three hours of “call time” every day that a senator or member of Congress is in cycle. Instead of taking meetings or attending hearings, members sit with a campaign cell phone and a list of phone numbers (off of federal property) calling on lobbyists and wealthy contacts for donations.
Most members do not enjoy it and the lobbyists don’t like it much either. “I just told a guy new to downtown to avoid writing his first check as long as he can. Because once you do, they (the members of Congress) smell blood in the water.”
Some members call lobbyists so often many screen their calls. “Unless I know who it is, I do not answer,” one told me. “I have six voice mails from a Senate candidate who keeps calling. Do you not get it? I’m not giving you money.”
And for a process that was already flush with cash, staffers and lobbyists alike said that the recent “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision eliminating limits on donations has exacerbated the pressure to raise campaign cash.
“The super PAC stuff has changed the whole dynamic,” a former legislative director told me, who described senior members spending additional time, above and beyond their usual fundraising, to fly to the hometowns of billionaires in hopes of a large, single money bomb for their parties or super PACs.
“There are no real limits anymore,” a lobbyist said. “You used to be able to tell people, ‘I’m maxed out.’ But that’s out the window.”
The universal theme on and off the Hill is that the current campaign financing system, while not explicitly corrupt, is bad and getting worse. For people who really want it to change, Trump may be their man, for now. “We’re going to go to new campaign finance laws that are going to be terrific,” he promised his crowd in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Unlike other candidates who are raising tens of millions of dollars from other people to finance their presidential campaigns, it's almost plausible that Trump would change the rules, because he's gotten to the top of the polls almost free of charge.
But even Trump may change his mind on paying his own way if he gets to the general election, where the cost of a national campaign will run well past half a billion dollars and "friends" with money will be happy to help. Footing that bill by himself might be a price too steep, even for Donald Trump. That’s real money, no matter who is paying.
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