A new book that argues politicians in Washington manufacture crises and manipulate vote scheduling and other legislative activity as part of a Mafia-like "protection racket" to extort campaign donations is drawing attention from such divergent corners as The New York Times and Sarah Palin.
But the book, Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes and Line Their Own Pockets, is predictably not drawing rave reviews from House Speaker John Boehner, whose office is lashing out at author Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and an editor-at-large at Breitbart.
"He should probably read 'Congress for Dummies' before he starts making bogus and salacious claims to sell books," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement.
Schweizer, in an interview on Wednesday, said he'd not yet heard directly from Boehner's office. But he expected blowback, given his assertions.
Schweizer advances a novel argument: Rather than special-interest money in Washington being funneled to politicians in order to gain access and favor, politicians run government in ways designed to extract special-interest money from various constituencies. He also says that the notion that Washington dysfunction is a product of partisanship and ideological entrenchment can be looked at in a different light: that gridlock, legislative threats, and fear of uncertainty help prime the donation pump.
"It's one of the oldest and most effective forms of extortion: the protection racket," he writes in one chapter. "Pay me money and I will promise not to make your life miserable. Fail to pay and bad things will happen to you."
Schweizer writes that that has been the "bread and butter" of organized crime for centuries, but that "the Permanent Political Class in Washington plays the protection racket, too. Failure to pay will not get you killed—but it could kill your business."
To make his case, Schweizer describes various maneuvers in which he argues politicians engage in a form of legal extortion to extract campaign contributions from business or other special interests. His book throws out colorful terms for these maneuvers, such as "toll-booth" requirements, "milker bills," "double-milker bill," and "juicer bills."
"Twenty-seven states' legislatures have put restrictions on allowing state politicians to receive contributions while the legislature is still in session," said Schweizer, who suggests the same types of restrictions should be considered for Congress.
In one case, Schweizer points to what he calls the "tollbooth" maneuver. In the interview, he said he first head of that phrase from a member of the "business community," who used it to describe contributions he had to pay before getting floor action on a tax-extender. Schweizer said that led him to explore further.
In his book, he depicts Boehner as the master of the tollbooth, and focuses in part on the events surrounding a 2011 vote on the Wireless Tax Fairness Act, a bill with widespread support that sailed through committee in July of that year on a voice vote. Yet, Schweizer notes that the scheduling of a floor vote on the bill lingered until the fall.
Boehner eventually announced a vote would be held on Nov. 1. Schweizer notes that the day before the vote, 37 checks from wireless-industry executives totaling nearly $40,000 rolled in to his campaign, including 28 from executives at AT&T. The day of the vote, he writes, employees at Verizon, another company with a lot at stake in the bill, sent 28 checks to members of Congress.
"Checks don't just magically appear, and they don't arrive by chance," he writes, adding, "When corporate executives make donations on the same day at the same time, especially when a large group of them do … it is likely there has been an organized solicitation."
Officially, the majority leader sets the votes on the House floor, not the speaker, although typically the leadership team works together on such decisions. One House aide, in responding to this part of the book about the Wireless Tax Fairness Act, notes that it was not controversial and passed without even a recorded vote. The wait after committee action, the aide said, was less than two months, if the August recess is taken into consideration.
The book also identifies other bills for which Schweizer says votes appear to be delayed, only to see eventual floor action accompanied in by a flurry of contributions by individuals or businesses with interests in the legislation.
But Buck denounced the entire notion. "The idea that floor votes are scheduled based on campaign donations is absurd," he said, adding that some of the bills cited actually saw a short period of time between committee action and floor consideration—less than a week in one instance—and that that could not possibly be called a delay.
The book goes on to describe "milker" bills as those that allow a politician to "squeeze" an industry or special interest for donations out of simple fear a bill might pass. He notes that, "in Washington, it is far more important to be feared than loved" and that the "Permanent Political Class" operates that way.
He also writes that the best of these bills allow two sides to be solicited at the same time, "one on each side of the issue."
Schweizer alleges that President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden seemed to use the tactic in 2011 in connection with two bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. By pitting supporters in Silicon Valley, who opposed the bills, against those in Hollywood, who supported the measures, Schweizer suggests they were able to create a sort of fund-raising arms race.
Schweizer's books also discusses the fundraising dues that accompany assignments on plum committees, and how funds from so-called "leadership" political action committees help to purchase lawmaker's loyalty.
But some in Congress say the author simply does not understand the legislative process.
"This 'expert' is utterly clueless about the legislative process and guilty of pathetically sloppy research," Buck said, adding, "This 'expert' did not even bother to contact our office. If he had, we would have been happy to explain the facts."
While Boehner's office lashed out, The New York Times on Monday published an op-ed from Schweizer in which he outlined many of the assertions found in his book. And on Wednesday, an item on the paper's "Editorial Page Editors Blog" reiterated how Schweizer's book argues that "politicians ranging from Speaker John Boehner to President Obama raise money by threatening to push provocative legislation, then holding back to see which interests contribute the most cash for or against the measures."
The blog post said the issue "cannot get enough publicity, but the best news of all is that the book was written by a conservative," adding, "There's no reason why reducing the influence of money should be a conservative or a liberal project."
And an article under Palin's byline appearing Monday on the Breitbart site says of Schweizer's findings, "Enough is enough. If the permanent political class won't drain the swamp, we will."
This article appears in the October 24, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.