Guest Opinions

Sen. Crapo shows how special interests still rule the roost in Washington

Trump signs Sen. Crapo’s banking reform bill into law

Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both attended the May 24, 2018 ceremony where President Donald Trump signed into law Crapo's bill easing some Dodd-Frank bank regulations.
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Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both attended the May 24, 2018 ceremony where President Donald Trump signed into law Crapo's bill easing some Dodd-Frank bank regulations.

My first memory of youthful ideals crashing into the grim realities of lawmaking came in a state legislature, when I served on the staff of the Republican majority in the Illinois House of Representatives. Adjusting textbook explanations of the legislative process to how laws are really made, the chairman of the House Banking Committee would put a price on bills coming through his committee from banking interests. The bankers paid the price and their bills sailed out of committee.

Thanks to a tough federal prosecutor, legislators engaged in such behavior were indicted, found guilty of their crimes and sent to federal prison. I think of those days often when I see how much more sophisticated pubic officials are today as they adjust their fundraising strategies to stay within the law.

News from the McClatchy Washington Bureau that Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, offers contributors the opportunity to fish with him for a hefty price is a good example of the modern-day version of influence peddling. All it will cost is $10,000 that you either give to his campaign or that you raise for the Crapo campaign coffers. If you prefer a dinner with the senator, that will cost you $15,000. These are all part of a larger package of Crapo solicitations with the tell-it-like-it-is title of “Senator Mike Crapo’s 2019 Max Out Package.”

With recent presidential contenders raising record-breaking campaign funds online from small donors, Crapo offers a stark contrast, with lobbyists and other large donors stepping up to the plate with contributions intended for a specific purpose. According to Brendan Fischer, the director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for reducing the influence of money in politics, “The (Crapo) campaign is quite literally selling access in exchange for money.”

Fischer is quick to add that nothing in the invitation violates any laws, and considering who’s writing the laws, no shock there.

It brings to mind a quote often attributed to the 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” I’m sure that’s how Sen. Crapo would have preferred it. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, he sponsored a banking deregulation bill last year that rolled back protections in the Dodd-Frank legislation, which had corrected banking abuses to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis. And now on the heels of that gift to the banking industry comes a perfect opportunity to give thanks through a not-so-subtle fishing trip.

The issue here is not whether a law was violated, but how the influence of campaign contributions from special interests affects the behavior of our elected officials when performing their official duties.

Money might not always talk, but, at the very least, it whispers in cases like this, and aids and abets the interests of those who have the most cash to supply. Meanwhile, constituents who show up at Crapo’s office to plead for his support have to compete with those who got to the senator first, on fishing trips, dinners or whatever the latest gimmick is to sell access and influence.

To protect against the concentration of financial and political power that accrues to the benefit of public officials in Washington, there are laws and agencies that oversee and govern disclosure of information — information that constituents have a right to know about their public officials. Unfortunately, Crapo’s track record in playing by the rules leaves lots to be desired.

Over the years, his campaign has been guilty of lax campaign reporting of his wife’s salary from his campaign funds and his use of a townhouse owned by a lobbyist. Such sloppy reporting, which resulted in a Federal Election Committee fine in 2016, should lead to more careful strategies on how to raise funds for a re-election campaign. Obviously undeterred by his brushes with federal campaign cops, his latest fishing expedition should raise serious questions about where Crapo’s primary allegiance lies when he votes as a senator elected by Idahoans.

Term limits for public officials have been debated ad nauseam, and sometimes implemented in state governments. Although Crapo is hardly the lone ranger when it comes to suspect approaches to securing campaign contributions in U.S. Senate re-election efforts, his behavior does raise the question of why we don’t put term limits in effect for Congress.

Crapo’s goal in this latest scheme is all about getting re-elected to the Senate in 2022, when he has already served more than a quarter-century in Congress. Is that not enough of the senator’s public service?

This is the part where long-serving public officials wax eloquently about how invaluable and singularly critical they are to their home state, and how it would lose all that seniority that brings home the bacon. They might be more convincing if they fessed up to the allure of public office and how difficult it is to return home to a normal life after basking in the limelight of official Washington and benefiting from all those perks.

Idaho is rich with aspiring and ambitious public officials who would like to take that next step up the political ladder. Or better yet, someone from outside government who can bring new perspective and experience. One way or another, Idaho deserves fresh leadership independent of special interests in Washington.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.
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