Presumably, Democrats haven't been trying to lose. I'm going to guess you'll say you can do this [while] other Democrats have not because you're almost alone in the party in not taking PAC money.
You're rare because some members, like [Rep.] Ro Khanna [CA], never took money. But you did and then changed. What changed in your life after you stopped taking that money?
It went from a conscious decision to a non-conscious decision. When I ran in 2012, there was only one PAC that gave us a check that was not solicited by us — it was the Marijuana Policy Project. We beat the incumbent through many small contributions.
But the day I won the primary, the PAC checks just flooded in. And I was like: "Cool. Great." I didn't ask for the contributions. They came in. Free money.
And then when I came up here, as most people do, I hired a DC fundraiser. And that really consists of going to mixers, where you're going to meet the representatives of the interests who have business in front of your committees. The people we just met with [today in our office] were from Novartis — a pharmaceutical manufacturer that wants us to allow Medicare Part D to pay for obesity drugs. I assume Novartis has a PAC. And what you'd do is you'd call Novartis later and say, "Hey, love what you guys are doing fighting obesity; by the way, I have a tough reelection so you should help me out." That's how it works.
But I did have a "road to Damascus" moment. I was meeting a lobbyist for lunch at Tortilla Coast [a Mexican restaurant one block from the Capitol]. And they also gave me a $10,000 PAC check, which didn't feel good, and I was thinking, "I guess that's just how this place works."
It was an agricultural interest. And they had one lobbyist — like the sherpa [or handler] who brings you around — who brings you around, and he organized the lunch. And then there were 10 farmers in this given industry — who were very good people trying to deal with a government that works this way, where you buy influence and access and, hopefully, outcomes. That's what they were trying to do: chip in, and go to lunch with this guy, and tell him our personal histories ...
Then we're voting on the floor [of the House] on the farm bill, and there's an amendment that's specific to their interests. My team had recommended I vote against it ... And for a second — and I don't have this industry in my congressional district — for a second the thought crosses my mind, "I should just vote for this, because it really doesn't matter to my constituents; it's like a few million dollars in a $1.2 trillion [federal] budget, and it will ensure next year that they support me." Obviously, I wouldn't be telling you this story if I voted yes [laughs]; I voted no.
But that was my moment. And then I said: "I'm done. I'm never doing this again." And that was before I served on the Armed Services Committee, and that, for me, it underscored the importance not just of not being captured but not even appearing to be conflicted — I never want anyone to think, "Did he just do this because he got $30,000 from Boeing?"
Sen. Elizabeth Warren makes this point that the influence of money in the Capitol isn't literally lobbyists trundling through the halls carrying briefcases full of cash, but that money has a much more subtle, gas-like effect where it creeps up quietly behind you.
Absolutely, yes — that's a great way to describe it. In describing it that way, it actually takes away some of the complicity from members of Congress. Because they were elected into a system that works this way, and their No. 1 goal is to get reelected, if any of them are honest with you. The system as it works today, one of the only ways to get reelected is to traffic in this stuff.
So how do you see Congress differently as a result of no longer taking money? Are you now making this case to fellow Democrats that they should also stop taking PAC money?
Absolutely. Republicans are at least intellectually honest about this stuff, or many Republicans are — they say, "Look, I agree money is speech and corporations are people and, therefore, corporations should spend unlimited amounts to effect outcomes. That's just what I believe, so I'll do business accordingly."
Democrats say, "This is fucking crazy, the worst thing ever; our democracy is over, but I've got to play the game until we're on top, and then I'll change the rule so this won't continue."
When I was in Philly for the Democratic National Convention, I had a headline that said, "Democrats in Philly: money corrupts politicians, unless we're the ones taking it."
I very much feel that way. I'm the last to judge, and so no judgment, but I think there's a great opening for Democrats to connect with [the fact that] people know — and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump used the same word, and it was the right word — that this is "rigged." From the inside, I can tell you that it is absolutely rigged. And rigged in kind of a perverse, almost unconscious way, in the way Sen. Warren talks about.
Lawrence Lessig makes this really good point — items 1 through 10 on the reasons you came here, no amount of money is going to change your mind on it. But you'll vote on 1,200 items in a given session of Congress. So items 11-1,200 are open to influence, because you might get a couple of minutes per vote from your staff. You're in an inch deep on this stuff and one mile wide, so it's much easier for money to factor into your calculation — I have subject matter expertise on like three things, and you're not going to change me on any of those.
So here's the big opening for candidates for Congress. Don't just acknowledge that it's rigged. Have the courage to walk the walk. And my bet is that you will be rewarded by people who are so grateful someone is actually going to live accordingly.