- A new HBO documentary that follows three Republican members of Congress exposes how special interest groups wield immense influence over federal lawmakers.
- “The Swamp” reveals an open secret in D.C. that prominent committee seats are doled out to members of Congress not based on their merit but on their ability to raise huge sums of cash for their party.
- “The Swamp” premiers on HBO on Aug. 4 at 9:00 p.m. ET.
A new HBO documentary follows three Republican members of Congress as they offer a behind-the-curtain look into the power big money special interest groups and lobbyists wield in Washington D.C.
“The Swamp,” set to premiere Tuesday evening on HBO, follows Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Ken Buck of Colorado for much of 2019 through early 2020 as they juggle the incessant fundraising demands placed upon them by party leadership while simultaneously navigating key events such as former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress and the Ukraine impeachment hearings.
“There is an essence of this place that doesn’t change no matter who wins the elections … the majority party is simply the party that is first in line to be the servant to the special interest overlords,” Gaetz says early in the film. “I think that machinery, that infrastructure, that’s the swamp.”
The documentary reveals how members of Congress are assigned seats to powerful committees not based on their merit, but on their ability to dole out huge sums of money to the party they belong to, something that special interest groups that have business before the committees know and exploit.
“I think a lot of people would be surprised to find out that members of Congress are expected to pay their party for committee assignments,” Massie said. “This is like $200,000 to $500,000 every election cycle just to get a certain committee seat.”
“Where are you going to get that money? You’re not going to go back home and have a fundraiser in somebody’s living room,” Massie said. “The people that fund your purchase of the committee seat are the people who have an interest in the work product of that committee, i.e. the lobbyist.”
Congressional leaders have even set up a letter grade ranking system for committees, which Gaetz explains in the film are “solely latched to that committee’s ability to generate campaign cash for its members.”
“If you’re on the Ways and Means committee, and you have jurisdiction over the entire tax code, there is no lobbyist in this town that would not swim across the Potomac to deliver you a $5,000 check,” Gaetz said. “But if you’re on the veteran’s affairs committee, which is really important, you just don’t have the same bevy of special interests thirsting for your attention with your donations.”
Midway through the film, Gaetz says he was delivered the “somewhat unfortunate news” during a monthly party meeting for Republican members of Congress that he still owes $124,500 in dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“A lot of times they’re telling you, ‘Hey if you’re on this committee these are the lobbying groups you need to go see or here are the lobbying firms that are most likely to give to your campaigns,” Gaetz said.
The film features extensive commentary from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich “destroyed Congress” in the mid-1990s by consolidating the leader’s authority and doling out committee assignments to fundraising prowess, practices Lessing said have been adopted by his successors, including current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Under Gingrich, Lessig said, “committee chairmanships were increasingly assigned to people who raised money. and if you didn’t raise money — the Democrats did this, Nancy Pelosi did this — you kicked somebody off the chairmanship.”
“So this is all about changing what was supposed to be a really critical institutional role played by a chairman, someone who knows something about the field, to just the most effective fundraiser in that field,” Lessig said.
The film reveals how congressional leaders are also chosen based on their ability to bring in cash for their party.
“It’s the rank-and-file that chooses the leadership, but people misunderstand that somehow we’re choosing people that we think are the best at articulating our positions. That’s not true,” Buck says in the documentary. “It’s who can raise the money, and the special interest groups control the money.”
“The hierarchy of power in Washington D.C. is special interest groups, leadership, rank-and-file members,” Buck added.
“The Swamp” premieres on HBO on Aug. 4 at 9:00 p.m. ET.
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