Back in November 2008, Walt Minnick had just become politics’ biggest outlier — a Democrat winning a House of Representatives seat in Republican Idaho.
In the immediate afterglow of the victory, he wanted a respite from the near-constant fundraising before beginning to fundraise for his next campaign.
He got five days. “I refused to raise money for the next week.
Any break is welcome,” Minnick says.
Last week, Minnick discussed money’s infection of politics on an episode of public radio’s This American Life.
“It’s distracting and it’s corrupting,” he tells The Inlander over the phone. “It’s why the Congress
can’t effectively address issues that are supported by major financial interests.
It’s why it’s impossible to get a bill through Congress to let Medicare negotiate drug prices.”
Yet, for all his salvos against the influence of Big Money, less than three months after losing re-election, Minnick started a lobbying firm of his own. From that dual experience, he discusses his frustrations with how both sides work.
“The money game is just as bad for a lobbyist as it is for a politician,” Minnick says. “And both of them hate it.”
One inequity Minnick saw: As soon as he got elected, it became a lot easier to raise money. Lobbyists and big donors are reluctant to give to a challenger. It’s a feedback loop: Since challengers usually lose, lobbyists don’t want to risk upsetting an incumbent, who might vote on the lobbyist’s bill the next week. And since it’s harder for challengers to raise money, challengers tend to lose.
“It’s the reason why, for a normal year, about 95 percent of incumbents get re-elected,” Minnick says.
That doesn’t mean that the incumbent gets off easy. One reason Minnick won the first time, he says, is that his opponent, Bill Sali, did a very poor job of raising money. Nearly every working day, Minnick spent two or three hours making fundraising phone calls.
“The amount of time members of Congress are spending fundraising is disgraceful,” Minnick says.
While he’s never seen something as crass and lobbyists paying for legislation, the assumption loomed: If he voted a certain way, he’d lose money. He cites a situation in which a defense contractor pushed for a second engine on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Neither the Obama administration nor the Pentagon wanted the engine, but the contractor’s power continued to influence Congress.
“The second engine manufacturer was spending huge amounts of money to try to keep the Congress from cutting it out of the contract,” Minnick says. “The conflict there was not with the district, but with my fundraisers. I walked away from that money.”
With all his talk, it may seem odd that Minnick started the Majority Group, a lobbying firm that advertises its use of “personal connections” to represent clients, “defend their reputations” and “modify government policies to help them improve their profitability and achieve their objectives.”
Minnick says he went into lobbying because his wife wanted to live in D.C., and he wanted to continue to work on issues he cares about. He represents the interests of potatoes, for example — pushing to keep potatoes eligible for the federally funded Women Infants and Children nutrition program. On some human rights issues, he lobbies for free.
“I will not take a client or argue a point of view that I personally disagree with,” Minnick says.
As a lobbyist, Minnick is running into some of the same frustrations he faced as a congressman. Often, it’s the congressman’s staff that calls the lobbyist, not the other way around.
“Lobbyists dread the phone call from political fundraisers,” Minnick says. “You have to contribute if you don’t want to offend members of Congress.”