Senator Mike Crapo
Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The phrase “drain the swamp” has been around for a while but its current usage probably began in 1976 when Ronald Reagan, who was making an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Republican Party’s nomination, said, “Sometimes, when you are up to your elbows in alligators, it is hard to remember your original objective was to drain the swamp. I think we can drain the swamp. We can take on the Washington system. We can change from remote control to personal control of our lives.” In 2000, Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan revived the phrase, and Nancy Pelosi used it as a theme for her successful bid to take back control of the House of Representatives in the 2006 midterms. Donald Trump made great use of it in his 2016 campaign.

There’s no hard and fast definition of the term. To me, the most glaring examples of swamp-like behavior are seen when retired or ousted lawmakers take positions at lobbying firms or governmental regulators take jobs at companies they were responsible for overseeing. This is sometimes referred to as the “rotating” or “revolving door.”  The basic problem is that well-connected and wealthy people are able to game the system by usurping the legislative role or capturing the regulatory scheme. The losers are generally everyone else who doesn’t have special access or high-priced lobbyists.

We can’t ignore campaign finance law and practice, however, when we’re talking about gaming the system.  Lawmakers are required to raise unholy amounts of money, and that makes them solicitous of big donors who can help cut down on the amount of time they have to spend dialing for dollars. To see an example of how this works, we need not look no further than the freshly minted new chairman of the Senate Banking Committee:

Got $15,000? If so, Sen. Mike Crapo’s campaign invites you and a guest to a dinner with Senate banking subcommittee chairmen.

$10,000 raised or donated gets you one seat. But giving or raising either sum allows access to a good time with Crapo, the Senate Banking Committee chairman, including fishing on the Chesapeake Bay or a fall retreat at the posh Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia.

“The campaign is quite literally selling access in exchange for money,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center, a group that advocates for reducing the influence of money in politics.

Neither he nor Paul Ryan, vice president, policy & litigation at Common Cause, saw anything in the Crapo invitation that violates any law, as neither the senator nor anyone else is expressly offering to write or support legislation.

“Clearly the intent is selling access and influence. What it is not doing is selling action,” Ryan said.

But, Fischer added, “Mike Crapo’s constituents are not going to have this opportunity to go fishing with him unless they give him $15,000.”

If you read that carefully, you’ll notice that Sen. Crapo isn’t just selling access to himself, but to all the subcommittee chairs of the Banking Committee. If you’re keeping track, that would include Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, David Perdue of Georgia, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. McClatchy reporters asked all five for comment and the only response they got was from Sen. Sasse’s office which simply told them to talk to Crapo. Here’s what is for sale:

The Crapo invitation was disclosed by Political Party Time, a nonpartisan group that tracks fundraising events.

The invitation gives no details about the subcommittee chairmen dinners, other than it’s to take place in Washington this summer. The fishing trip is scheduled for April 28-29, and the Greenbrier retreat is scheduled for Nov. 15-16.

The invitation offers three packages. Gold members, who give or raise $15,000, can get the chairmen’s dinner, a Washington reception with Crapo, one retreat, “a lunch of dinner of your choice” and two tickets to the “Annual Idaho Potato Fest.”

The silver package, for those giving or raising $10,000, offers much of the same, but only one ticket to the chairmen’s dinner and the potato fest.

A bronze plan, available to those who give or raise $5,000, entitles a person to one of the retreats, the Crapo Washington reception, and the choice of a lunch or the potato fest.

As the article dryly notes, the Banking Committee is extraordinary powerful and “oversees the Federal Reserve Board, writes laws governing financial institutions and securities policy and is supposed to be a watchdog and advocate for consumers.” Yet, I doubt anyone who could be defined as a mere “consumer” will be ponying up five, ten, or fifteen grand to fund Senator Crapo’s leadership PAC. According to the Federal Election Committee, the maximum allowable contribution to a candidate is $2,700 per election, and $5,000 per calendar year to their Political Action Committee, so I’m not sure how the silver and gold packages are even legal.

One way to drain this kind of swamp is to vote the people out of office, but it’s pretty hard to vote Republicans out of office in Idaho, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nebraska. In any case, while this may be a particularly egregious example, this isn’t a strictly partisan problem, Democrats have to raise insane amounts of cash, too.

The single biggest barrier to solving this problem is that every person in Congress (with the occasional exception of interim replacements in the Senate) has just won an election under the system that exists. They know how to succeed as politicians in this system so their incentive to change it is muted. They almost universally despise the amount of time and effort it takes to raise money, and many don’t like the compromises they have to make to get it, but most would prefer to keep what works for them if making reforms would potentially make it easier from them to be challenged.

This is one reason why presidential leadership can be critical to any real reform. President Trump wanted to drain the swamp, but I very much doubt he’ll see this article about the Republican senators on the Banking Committee and have anything negative to say about their fundraising effort.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at