A Critique of Rep Ken Buck's (R-CO) Book "Drain the Swamp" (Chap 1 - 3)
U.S. Representative Ken Buck (R-CO)
Work has over taken me and I have slowed way down on my writing - plus I keep finding new things to write about - and I am a procrastinator par excellence (I have been trying to publish a book for 5 years now, for example.) Consequently, I am going to go ahead and publish this article and continue to add to it as I can. When I get done, this capsule will disappear.
Railing At Government
Like most politicians, Ken Buck ran for Congress to make a difference. Unlike other politicians, in his opinion, he intends to not cave in to the forces that change good politicians into self-serving ones. Since he is leaving Congress at the end of 2018, he will probably succeed.
Rep. Buck's politics are Tea-Party Right. He and I share little in common in how we interpret history, how it should apply to today, the role of government, or how government should work. But, having said that, there are several things, including his main thesis that government does not serve the People, that I do agree with. Where we agree and disagree will be pointed out as you and I work our way through the book.
Drain the Swamp is a book worth reading, by both the Left and the Right (but especially the Left). It is an easy read, logically put together, and logically argued. He takes aim at the political establishment in general and the Republicans in particular (only because they are the ones in power). That said, what he says about the GOP also applies to the Democrats.
Not Happy, Not Happy at All
Rep Buck jumps right into his major gripe about Congress - that the way it is operated does not let the People be properly represented. And that it is this way because the Swamp quickly provides personal benefits that lure once sincere politicians down the path of pure self-interest in keeping the bennies that accrue by simply being a congressman or woman (think the annual retreat each party makes to some very luxurious resort to party and plan.
To keep the swamp filled with muck, leadership (GOP in this case) take all independence away from members of their caucus. On page 4 in the forward, he lays the groundwork by saying:
"The all [new congressmen] promise to charge into Washington and "drain the swamp." But it only takes a few months before they discover the swamp can be a pleasant hot tub. And they want to stay in for a nice long soak."
He then follows with the motif (as well as the tone) he returns to time and time again for the next 141 pages:
"There were about 200 Republicans in rows of folding chairs in front of the leadership table. The members were expected to listen respectfully to the presentations by our leadership team and then line up behind microphones in the aisles to ask questions. ... The leadership explained that we needed to vote for more bad bills or the Senate would pass something even worse, they promised to address the excessive spending and debt after the next election, and they admonished us all to raise more money to make sure we stayed in the majority." (emphasis is mine)
From that simple idea come the titles of the next 13 chapters. To be honest, I believe Buck's description and inferences. Worse, I am not surprised anymore and suspect both parties try to work this way - and have been since the Republican sweep in 1994. (I put a date on it because I am old enough to remember how it use to work when the Hastert Rule1 was not in place and members were more likely to vote their own minds and would be willing to compromise with the other party.)
1 Hastert Rule is an unofficial GOP House rule created by Speaker Newt Gingrich's successor Dennis Hastert which said that the only legislation that he, as Speaker, would move forward is if the majority of the Republican caucus would vote for it (Gingrich also acted this way most of the time, but it was Hastart that put it into words). This informal rule flew in the face of everything the signers of the Constitution had in mind when they created the U.S. House of Representatives.
Chapter One - Why Washington is a Swamp
In this chapter, Rep. Buck sets his sights on the House budget - or the lack of one. The first budget Buck got to see in detail was the House 2015 budget. Here, he came face-to-face with the reality of federal financing and he did not like what he saw. He had many of the same problems with it as I did. He saw how the smoke and mirrors actually came into being.
Buck sets the tone for this and all following chapters when he says (p.8):
"Washington is a swamp because Congress ... wants it to be ... . It has nothing to do with gridlock or partisanship or political bickering. ... was how non-adversarial the atmosphere was. There was plenty of bi-partisan agreement that Washington should increase in size and spend money it doesn't have.2 Members of Congress are, for the most part, fat and happy alligators who feel pretty darned comfortable in the swamps of Washington."
He explains what he means with the following vignette. He found when he first arrived that in order to pay for the GOP "balanced" (in 10 years) budget, the budget writers included savings from, among other things, repealing Obamacare, cutting a $1 trillion out of food stamps (which mainly benefit children, the elderly, and the disabled), and $147 billion from increased GDP growth as a result of the budget. Rep Buck was smart enough to know that any savings from those sources was highly unlikely (even though he supports the attempt) and therefore part of the "smoke" in the budget.
One Republican member told him that "a budget is a moral document; it talks about where your values are1". Buck's response was (p. 8):
"All I can say is that lies, damn lies, and imaginary statistics (paraphrasing Mark Twain) don't represent my values."
I couldn't agree more.
The next exchange Buck has with the Republican House Whip is even more telling. It went something like this, if Buck is to believed:
Whip: "Are you a yes or a no?"
Buck: "Neither, I am a hell no!"
Whip: "But why, it balances in ten years?"
Buck: "How long have you been in Congress"
Buck: Did they tell you ten years ago, that the budget would be balanced in ten years?" (I like this guy!)
Whip, sighing: "You're right, this budget will never balance."
In spite of this, leadership nevertheless gave Buck and others talking points to use to sell their constituents this so-called budget! Rep Buck was not happy.
Buck explains why he believes the way he does by recounting his childhood and being taught the value of hard work and self-sufficiency. It is evident from the way he presents his case that he believes that because he and his parents did so, then everybody else can as well, regardless of circumstances.
He highlights that in growing up on the prairies of Wyoming people by noting that when he worked on his uncle's ranch that (p. 9):
"I loved working on the ranch because it was such a peaceful atmosphere, and we solved problems. We had to. If we didn't d it, no one else would. No one on the ranch looked to Washington to fix broken fences. If a neighbor had a problem, another neighbor helped fix the problem."
Referring to his time in local and state government he notes (p. 10):
"... We got things done. That's how America works, at least at the local level. We see a problem and we work together to solve it."3
I think what Rep. Buck forgets is that Congress was designed to be clumsy and inefficient and slow. One of our founder's greatest fears, which they wrote and spoke about often was protecting the general citizenry from demagogues; from having the wool pulled over their eyes by slick politicians.. Where did they get that idea in the first place, from having analyzed local and state governments and how they operate. Their conclusion - they didn't want to do it that way.4
Representative Buck joined the House in Jan 2015 (with no intention of making a career of it, a promise which he is keeping it seems). He says the first thing he noticed is that "... even I was surprised at how aggressively Congress avoids solving problems." (p. 11). He carries this theme through the rest of the book and becomes one of his personal windmills. He says, surprisingly, that:
"I expected gridlock; instead, I found Democrats and Republicans cooperating to bankrupt the country by avoiding tough budget choices" (p. 12)
I suspect he would offer the 2018 Omnibus as living proof of that assertion. From his point of view I am sure he is right. From mine it is a surprising example of uncharacteristic and welcome bipartisanship where real (dare I say it) compromise took place in order to break the gridlock we have seen in the last seven years. Nobody got everything they wanted but America got a solid budget without social riders.
It is at this point where Buck introduces another major theme of his book. And that is that much of the budget is illegal in that many of the programs paid for in a budget are "unauthorized". We will see more detail on that idea later.
Buck also uses a quote from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (I remember this one) that:
"... that the single greatest security threat we face - the one that keeps me awake at night - is not China, Russia, North Korea, or even Iran. It is our national debt. ... We just can't be the country we are capable of ... if we keep spending ourselves into oblivion. ..."(p.12)
Buck concludes with:
".Congress has no realistic strategy ... to solve this problem. ... those in Congress have been content to make it worse, expanding that debt balloon as far as they can, because they think it wins them votes and guarantees their power." (p. 12).5
Of course, there is much truth in that statement but given where the current deficit was going, his "as far as they can," is so much hyperbole that, in my opinion, misleads the reader.
The Culture of Corruption
At this point Rep Buck switches gears and begins explaining the mechanics of being a representative (and probably a senator) in Congress. He mainly flogs the Republicans, because that is who he deals with, but is also careful to point out the Democrats are just as guilty. This is also one of the reasons I bought his book after listening to him on the Michael Smerconish show on Sirius/XMs POTUS (124).
It seems that to be a member, its even worse for leadership, in the House of Representatives you have to pay-to-play. You pay by being hit up for "contributions" to the National Republican Congressional Committee (RNCC). He claims, and I believe him, that these monies are then used, ostensibly, to help the members get reelected; a reasonable goal and one I see that I could support myself.
The problem, however, is these monies are used to "coerce" members to vote with leadership (p. 13). It is a way to make sure there is a party-line vote whether the member believes the bill to be good or not. Buck summarize this major theme by asserting "I am a Republican, but the moment we put party of principle, we've lost." I note two things about that statement, 1) people normally think the phrase "party over ... " normally ends in "country" and not "principle" and 2) as we will see later, Buck's actions don't jibe with his words.
A Bipartisan Problem
Here Buck begins a new theme that both parties are the problem (which is true by most measures). He blames both parties for irrational spending, which again is true to a large degree.6 What I find sad is the lack of insight he provides into why much of the current debt load happened.
While initially pointing out how poorly the Democrats did in restraining spending, he also notes that
"In 2014, voters gave them [GOP] the Senate, and the House experienced another massive influx of Republican representatives. Yet still the precipitous slide into bankruptcy continued." (p. 15)
Why He Fights
Why Representative Buck fights might be wrapped up in his reference to the Truth-teller from Nazareth "If world hates you, keep in mind they hated me first." Buck sees himself as the "truth-teller", at least his own version of the truth. He "believes the stakes are too high to remain silent. If we do not demand change now, America and all we love about her will be lost -" (p. 15)
Protecting America from the Government
It is this sentiment that separates Ken Buck's political view from the rest of political actors, even other Republicans. While, like how Christians view God as being separate from the Universe, Buck thinks the People and Goverment are two different entities, the rest think of the government just being the extension of the People. Remember, another Republican famously said "... government of the people, by the people, and for the people." - Abraham Lincoln.
1 I actually agree with that member's sentiment, that a budget is a moral document, but it nevertheless must be a "practical" one that sets realistic spending goals for the federal government.
2 This is where Rep Buck and I begin to part ways. From observing and participating in government for over 50 years, it seems to me that neither, for the most part, the Democrats and certainly not the Republicans felt or acted this way. It only seems true to Buck because of his extreme view on the purpose of government.
3. I have lived in large and small towns, in suburbs and rural settings. The one thing I saw that local government had in common was how corrupt they were, as a rule. That the things that got done, generally had political and not civic overtones.
4 I refer you to such books and documents as James Madison's Notes on the Constitution Convention - http://www.nhccs.org/mnotes.html or , Rakove, Jack N. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution
5 The deficit had been falling dramatically at the time of this quote.
6 Ken Buck voted for the $1.3 trillion debt expanding GOP Tax Plan in 2018 which puts into question to his devotion of blind fiscal constraint.
Chapter 2 - Welcome to Washington, Congressman!
This chapter is devoted to Congressman Buck's introduction to the world of Washington politics Republican-style. (I doubt the Democratic orientation is any different.) At least when Buck went through orientation after winning his seat, orientation was eight days of ... PARTYING, or at least that is they he perceived it. When he asked why orientation was eight days long, the response was that it takes that long to get all of the parties in. (Really!) Needless to say, Rep Buck was not pleased.
The way Ken Buck sees it, orientation and all of these parties had one purpose - for "Party leaders wanted to secure our [the new congressmen and women] support for their [the leaders] reelection to leadership and thy wanted to make clear that if we were willing to play the Washington game, the party - the privileges and perks - could be ours forever."
During orientation these newbies started receiving the perks of office, free iPhones, laptops, any other technology - just ask. The message was "You won. It's all paid for now." A few words were spent emphasizing how lavish and opulent the party settings were, condemning them with the tone of his words in the process.
Rep Buck was elected president of the freshman class. It is sort of an honorary position, but doesn't have to be if the holder has a plan; and Buck did. Part of the responsibilities is to oversee the election of freshmen to committees. It is the Steering Committee that hands out these seats and, because the Class of 2014 was so large, they received 3 seats. In past years, the freshmen only had one representative. (p. 24)
Team America vs Team Republican
At this point, Buck identifies himself as a Country over Party kind of politician. He relates another freshman luncheon where Chris Christi was the featured speaker. He offers how disappointed he was to hear Christi declare that the
"fruits of victory were the ability to pass bills or bring money back our districts that would help us win reelection." and that Buck was "astonished that his speech was not about winning for Team America, but rather winning for Team Republican by playing the Washington game."
He writes that he left muttering to himself
"at the hypocrisy of it all. I ran for Congress as a Republican, and I share the values of the Republican Party far more than I do the values of the Democratic Party. But I was deeply offended to hear him [Christi] say that we were all supposed to march in lockstep so as to get reelected, that our primary loyalty, in other words, was to do well for our party rather than to do well for our country."(p.25)
A Slice of Disrespect
The following vignette shines a light on Rep Ken Buck's world view and should be taken in context with what he as said thus far.
When the parties were over and the freshmen about to return home, he and his wife went to a pizzeria for dinner. When they got there, they found a few men in black (Secret Service) there blocking off the upstairs where they went to eat. Instead, they ate outside and observed the following:
"Just as we were about to dig in two black SUV's pulled up, and more secret service agents emerged. Then a van pulled up, and snipers got out, grabbed their gear, and headed toward various buildings. ... Two vans appeared and out popped a group of Hispanic teenagers who entered the restaurant. Two more black SUVs pulled up and President Obama stepped out of one of them. ... The pizza shop was serving as a photo op before President Obama announced his unconstitutional 1 executive order granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens. Disgusted, I tweeted a picture I had taken ... with the message, 'Lost my appetite." The Denver Post framed it as a personal attack on the president: 'Ken Buck dishes out a slice of disrespect."
Buck then notes, ironically and with authority, that Obama was spending tens of thousands of dollars to flout our Constitution and adding to the $18 trillion debt.
1 Three years have passed and the constitutionality of DACA has not been determined although the last action was to uphold the executive order until a final ruling is made. Clearly, Rep Buck bias is showing through since he did not wait to make his unequivocal verdict.
Chapter 3 - Play the Game or Else
Rep Buck dives into what he and fellow Freedom Caucus members hold dear. He notes that Rep Rod Blum (R-IA) - "a true conservative" - started the Term Limits caucus and introduced legislation to 1) end lawmaker's access to first class travel and luxury leased cars and from ever becoming lobbyists. They support "free market solutions", "less government" 1, and "killing government waste". He says they (Rod Blum, Dave Brat (R-VA), and himself) have earned that reputation.2
Buck makes the case that GOP leadership took a dim view of their principled stands. The National Republican Congressional Committee created a so-called "patriots" list. These are GOP members in vulnerable districts the next election and in need of financial help. Rep Blum was missing from this list because he bucked (pun intended) leadership with his ultra-conservative positions.
This is probably true for Democrats as well, but plum GOP committee assignments are given to those who are "willing to play the game". If you don't, kiss your career goodbye. During orientation, Buck wanted to be on the Budget Committee. The chairman, Tom Price, approached him and asked him if he were on the committee, would he vote for the budget that came out of it. Buck asked "what if I don't like the budget?" Price nodded and walked away. Buck didn't get the job. Neither did other deficit hawks Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) and Justin Amash (R-MI) because they would vote for a budget that raised the deficit. They didn't play.
In the 2015 vote for speaker of the House, seventeen congressman voted against John Boehner (Buck played along and voted for Boehner). Leadership retaliated against each one of those seventeen defectors who didn't play along.
1 Less (or limited) government is an idea with no particular meaning. When the Constitution was first conceived, Convention goers George Mason, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton all claimed they believed in "limited" government. Yet Mason refused to sign the new Constitution because it gave the federal government way too much power, Madison wanted to give the central government veto power over all state legislation, and Hamilton's view of limited was even broader than Madison's. (Madison didn't get his way as we know.)
2 The thing is, I don't know of any politician who does believe in the latter goal while most politicians believe in the first two goals.
What Did The Signers REALLY Think?
Rep. Buck makes several claims about what the "founders" (in this case, those who signed the Constitution, thought in terms of the relationship between the States and the Federal Government. My readings of books like Original Meanings and Madison's Notes From the Constitutional Convention lead me to believe that Madison et al didn't think much of the state's ability to do right by We The People was mediocre at best.
© 2018 Scott Belford