Every grassroots political activist knows something is deeply wrong in Washington, D.C. No matter how hard we work to send good people to Congress, the majority of them go native upon arrival, forgetting their campaign rhetoric and falling in line with the political establishment. The few who retain their principles often seem sidelined and ineffective. Meanwhile, the legislative process is an unfunny joke: the Republican Congress can’t manage to keep its promises and repeal Obamacare, but it can pass a 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill without reading it.
What’s less clear is why the system is so broken, and what happens to turn our hometown congressmen into swamp critters. What is going on in those smoke-filled rooms? When brand-new representatives and senators arrive in D.C., what do they find?
A new documentary series, “The Swamp,” seeks to answer those questions, pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of Capitol Hill. Created by 28-year-old filmmaker Matt Whitworth, “The Swamp” has been releasing episodes to Facebook since April 4, with three 10-minute episodes released to date.
For a documentary featuring members of Congress, “The Swamp” is striking in how unfiltered it feels. Whitworth was granted unprecedented access to film and interview several House members as they work, meet with staff, and visit with constituents back home. Shockingly, the congressmen signed a film participation release relinquishing all editorial and creative control of the project.
“People in the House Freedom Caucus told these guys they were crazy to do this,” Whitworth told me in an interview. “I let them know up front: this isn’t going to be partisan. It’s not going to be either a hit piece or a puff piece. It’s not going to be a platform for your campaign message. We really want to show people what happens behind the scenes in Congress.”
To date, the few brave souls willing to accept these terms have been Reps. Dave Brat and Tom Garrett of Virginia, Ken Buck of Colorado, Rod Blum of Iowa, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Ted Yoho of Florida — all Republicans, and most members of the House Freedom Caucus. Whitworth tried to recruit Democrats as well — “these activities take place on both sides of the aisle” — but none were willing to take the risk.
What We’ve Learned From ‘The Swamp’ So Far
“The Swamp” focuses heavily on the top-down power structure in Washington, D.C., where just a few party leaders make the majority of decisions, punishing members who won’t toe the line. After watching the first three episodes, I found these six revelations the most striking:
1. Partisan gridlock? Nah, the parties work together when they want to.
“We have a bipartisan bankruptcy going on,” Rep. Buck says near the beginning of Episode 1. “I think both parties are engaged in a quiet deal that we will support our base, and if it leads to bankruptcy, okay, and you will support your base, and if it leads to bankruptcy, okay.”
In Episode 2, the congressmen cite an example: Republican and Democrat leadership worked together to make sure the bloated omnibus spending bill came up for a vote. When a number of conservative Republicans voted against the rule in an attempt to stop the bill, the Democrats changed just enough of their customary “no” votes to make sure it passed.
“You could just see the Democrats huddled around Nancy Pelosi, and she would just send the next one down to make sure that the rule passed,” Buck recalls. “When it comes to bankrupting the country, they cooperate all the time.”
2. Your congressman might be learning about a bill the same way you do: through the media, via lobbyists.
In Episode 2, Rep. Buck explains how leadership keeps its members in the dark about spending legislation: “On a number of spending bills, I have read about provisions that affect my district before I ever heard anything from Republican leadership. They will talk to lobbyists and get something in the bill to help the lobbyists, and then the lobbyists will talk to the media, and then I read about it. But I have no participation in what goes into a spending bill, and I’d venture to say that 95 percent of the members here don’t know what’s in a spending bill until we’re supposed to vote on it.”
Rep. Blum adds to the picture of a federal legislature run by a just a handful of people: “Most all the decisions around here are made by a few people at the very top, without the input of any other congressional members or U.S. senators. That’s not good representative government, wouldn’t you say?”
3. The rules are just for show.
Several congressmen express their frustration over the ease with which the House leadership is able to waive its own rules. In Episode 2, Freedom Caucus members excoriate GOP leadership for waiving several rules in order to pass the omnibus, most notably the rule requiring 72 hours for members to actually read the laws they’re about to foist upon the nation. “We do that every time,” Buck says. “Whatever rule we pass at the beginning of a session can be waived before we violate it in any bill.”
4. The party will make your congressman literally “pay to play” to sit on a committee.
One of the most shocking revelations comes in Episode 3, when Rep. Massie details how the party forces members to pay “rent” for their committee assignments and chairmanships. If a congressman wants to sit on a committee, he is expected to raise a certain amount of money for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the body that works to elect House Republicans. There is an identical system on the Democrat side. In an interview, Rep. Buck told me this system has been in place for Republicans since the days of Newt Gingrich, and even longer for Democrats.
The NRCC sends members a written “assessment” telling how much money they owe each session, based on committee assignments. (Massie displays his current assessment on camera. He says he’s left over a million dollars unpaid to the NRCC since his early days in Congress.) Committees are ranked by desirability and prestige — A, B, or C — and priced accordingly. “Veterans Affairs — that’s a C committee,” Massie says. “What if people back home knew that taking care of our veterans was considered the lowest-priority committee in Congress?”
The really perverse part of this system is that the amount of money required by the party — often totaling six or seven figures — can only be raised from one place: lobbyists. “The problem is, the incentive structure is set up to get you to sell out to lobbyists, because they’re the only ones who have the currency you need, which is campaign dollars, to buy your committee assignment,” Massie says in “The Swamp.” “It’s a terrible choice! Why should you have to do this? You’re faced with coming up here and prostituting yourself just so you can get a committee assignment where you can represent your constituents the best.”
5. The pressure to compromise starts on Day One.
Several congressmen talk on camera about their first experience of D.C. culture. Rep. Buck describes his freshman orientation this way: “It’s all designed to introduce members to how D.C. works, introduce members to the fact that there’s a good life if you play ball with the lobbyists, if you play ball with the power structure in D.C. … If you don’t play ball, there’s a set of punishments. They will do their best to isolate you and make sure that they take you out.”
Buck and Massie both describe amusing run-ins with staffers, who tried to pressure them into voting with the party when they were newcomers to Washington. “This is a staffer,” Massie says. “She’s giving me permission to vote my conscience, to vote for my constituents? It was ridiculous, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.”
6. Rep. Massie has the perfect nickname for his congressional pin.
“This is my congressional pin,” Massie says in Episode 3. “I try not to wear it all the time. I call it ‘Precious.’” I don’t care who you are, that’s just funny.
What’s Coming In Future Episodes
Whitworth plans to release a new episode of “The Swamp” roughly every three weeks, aiming for a total of six to eight episodes. “I can’t give away too much,” he says, “other than saying Facebook is just the first step for this series.” Shooting will continue throughout the summer, which means “The Swamp” will follow its protagonists on the campaign trail ahead of midterm elections. It may even give us a behind-the-scenes look at machinations to elect a new Speaker of the House.
Whitworth says Episode 4 will pick up the cliffhanger at the end of Episode 3, where Rep. Garrett abruptly announces his decision not to seek reelection. It remains to be seen what other repercussions “The Swamp’s” cast of congressional troublemakers might face, or how the political establishment might try to bite back. The day before Episode 3 premiered, Rep. Massie tweeted:
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) June 5, 2018
In a phone interview, Rep. Massie told me that the “trouble” came in the form of two separate journalists both pursuing an interview for the same story, highlighting fundraisers he’d attended with lobbyists. “I could tell that the thesis was going to be that I was a hypocrite, calling out lobbyists and asking them for money at the same time,” Massie said. “I suspect somebody who benefits from the existing structure of ‘pay to play’ tried to place that article.”
Massie is quick to point out that his beef isn’t primarily with lobbyists, but rather with the party for creating a system that incentivizes corruption. “I was calling out the NRCC and the fact that they are renting out committee seats. I was not calling out lobbyists. I don’t know a single person who got here without raising money.”
I asked Rep. Massie and Buck how some of the problems exposed by “The Swamp” could be fixed. Both congressmen suggested rule changes making it unethical to link committee assignments to fundraising, just for starters. “You’d need to have a dozen changes like that in the House,” Buck said, “and then attract people to the House who are willing to take risks—who have the confidence to go back to their districts and explain their votes.”
Both congressmen stress the importance of voters themselves in the process of reforming Washington. “We need a responsible electorate that’s informed and doesn’t just wake up to the election two weeks before it happens,” Buck said. “And we need people attracted to politics who are willing to make sacrifices. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve tried to recruit to run for offices who have told me, ‘You’ve got to be crazy! I’ve seen those campaign commercials; they would rip me apart.’ I look at it this way: my grandson deserves the right to have the same opportunities in this country that I’ve had. And if I’m not willing to go through some grief to make that happen, then shame on me.”
One place for voters to start might be simply by watching “The Swamp,” and getting fed up with the status quo.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rep. Massie is a member of the House Freedom Caucus.