You may have noticed the frustration level rising back home. You may be experiencing enough frustration right there in your own office to question your choices. Focus is key in a crisis. When you face an enemy inflicting damage on a such a broad battlefield, it is easy to lose sight of what matters. Rep. Casten, please focus your efforts on getting Donald Trump’s finances into daylight while we still can.
Why do we need to see Trump’s finances? More to the point, why should that be our top priority among so many pressing needs? Money tells the truth when all around us are lying. Money explains why the effort you’ve poured into legislative priorities has produced so little return. And nothing will paint a more honest picture of the influence of money on our entire political system than a few rays of sunlight falling on the Trump businesses.
Back in 2006, I was a Republican precinct committeeman in DuPage County helping to place Peter Roskam in Congress. For more than a decade I happily served in that role, helping to elect smart, pragmatic Republicans in the Chicago suburbs.
Like many of your voters, I recognized the threat of the Trump campaign and resigned from the party in 2016. Your district was redrawn a few years ago, giving me a different representative, but you were elected by thousands of voters like me who would still be Republicans but for the dangers posed by this Administration. There’s probably no other member of Congress who depended more heavily on the votes of former Republicans to earn their seat.
I donated to your campaign and plan to do so again. My friends and neighbors, some of the former Republicans, traveled to your district to walk precincts for you. But for my cancer fight, I would have been by their sides in 2018. Thanks to a victory in that fight, I plan to join them in on the streets to support you in 2020.
Our political system is bottlenecked around a single, frustrating problem – thanks to the influence of money, our elected representatives are not free to represent us. No one can run for office, or even for re-election, without a massive fundraising effort. That was a frustrating, but manageable problem when the donors manipulating our system were domestic, and could at least be set against each other to achieve some balance. Now that hostile authoritarian regimes are learning to exploit the financial vulnerabilities in our system, we are dangerously outgunned.
For a brief window, this exploit in our democracy is supported by a uniquely vulnerable lynchpin. Pull that pin, and we have a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expose and undermine those weakening our representative system. Here’s that weakness:
Our President happens to be a criminal who has kept the critical details of his business dealings secret. As President, he is vulnerable to scrutiny and disclosure beyond anything he might face in private life. Nothing you might accomplish in your tenure as a Congressman will be as significant as bringing the President’s finances into daylight, with all their implications in both parties. And if you and your colleagues fail, we may not get a second chance to rescue our representative system. Fail now, and we may welcome a new system in which our oligarchs join forces with their global peers in an alliance against which we will be terribly outmatched.
How? Start by doing the only thing you can. Go on strike, refusing to support any legislation until Congress has access to the President’s tax returns.
In an established democratic Kleptocracy like Ukraine or Russia, your government announces a big investment in a new hospital. Headlines trumpet the investment for weeks, then attention fades. Years later, you’re still showing up to the same deteriorating hospital, still short on beds and medicine, with doctors asking for bribes to keep food on their table, and no one knows why.
You can live in a country that guarantees universal health care and taxes your wages to provide it, and the money never shows up to pay doctors or hospitals. Whatever you might do to track the spending ends with threats and dead ends. Anyone who pushes too hard for answers meets with an unfortunate accident.
Dark money exerts a gravitational force in a Kleptocracy, pulling all democratic political energy off-plumb in unpredictable, seemingly unexplainable ways. In time, citizens give up on the democratic process because it simply fails to function. Elections still happen, but no one cares. Voters pick ever-more extreme or bizarre candidates – comedians, pop stars, or outright mobsters in a desperate effort to “shake things up,” but no one seems capable of identifying the hole in the bucket, the malfunction that breaks every government effort. Democracy simply fades away while the wealthy secede into a libertarian and increasingly cut-throat netherworld of post-nationalism.
Why, Rep. Casten, do you find yourself unable to pass gun control legislation supported by 90% of American voters? Why are you unable to make health care affordable and available for Americans in a manner taken for granted in every other functioning democracy? Why is it impossible to achieve the simplest legislative results in our system, even when those outcomes enjoy overwhelming popular support?
Republicans are the not the problem, they are only a symptom. Our best, most concise summary of this problem would emerge from untangling the web of Donald Trump’s finances. From there, we would begin to understand the financial and political ties that extend across party boundaries, making your job virtually impossible and the effort you pour into it a persistent, frustrating waste.
In response, you might explain that you are just one Congressman among 435, and a freshman in a swing district at that. You might remind your constituents that compromise builds effective policy. The democratic process, you might explain, requires patience and persistence. Don’t kid yourself.
You’re just a freshman. Nevertheless, you have more power than we do, and we sent you there to use it. Whatever we might do through protests, letter-writing and careful support of the right causes you may now do to the nth power. Use your leverage, or we have all wasted ours.
Perhaps you imagine that you’re building your way toward policy breakthroughs on key issues like universal health care or sensible gun regulation. You’re not. If the system that produced Donald Trump is not attacked at its crux, your hopes of meaningful achieving legislative reforms on any subject are pure fantasy.
You might explain that you are already taking steps to address this problem, and you would be right. Your stand on impeachment is appreciated. Your willingness to defend your district on key issues is a refreshing change from the past. Thank you for that. In your own honest assessment, what do those efforts seem likely to accomplish? Unfortunately, we face an unusual challenge, and the usual political responses are not enough.
Most corrosive of all, you might indulge in the cruelest dream. After “the next election” your party will have enough votes to finally deliver all our legislative unicorns. Money has no partisan bias. Fail to exploit this rare opportunity to expose the financial networks that skew our politics, and no upcoming Democratic President will accomplish anything more substantial than the last one did.
So, what are you supposed to do from a back-bench position while raising money for reelection in a hotly contested Republican district? First, recognize the importance of the President’s financial secrecy, its connection to our larger problem of money in politics, especially the rising waves of foreign money in our system, and articulate that problem. It’s a complex problem your constituents feel, but do not fully understand, thanks in large part to sophisticated efforts to cloak the problem.
Stop protecting a system that has failed. Do the one thing you can do. Promise to be a no-vote on everything in Congress until the IRS Director complies with a lawful Congressional subpoena to turn over Trump’s tax returns.
At the same time, lay out a battle plan for a more aggressive campaign against corruption. Demand an investigation into the IRS Commissioner, who is a pretty shady character in his own right. Call on others in Congress to join you. Put pressure on the people abetting this President’s crimes. Insist that our Commerce Secretary explain his ties to money laundering banks in Cyprus. Make the enablers of this system face daylight. Make them face scrutiny. And place your own leadership in the position of having to explain their apathy on this subject (yes, it is apathy).
Use the platform of your strike to promote other necessary reforms. For example, it should be a crime for any government agency to spend money at one of the President’s properties. This will create an interesting conundrum for federal agencies – determining whether any of their contractors are in fact owned by the President, a question that can’t be answered while the President’s finances are secret. It also means that the President will have to either let the Secret Service onto his properties for free, or golf without their protection.
Congress should enact a new rule that no members will be seated without disclosing their past five years of tax returns. Watch how much resistance this simple, rational suggestion attracts from within your own party.
Insist on new legislation tightening FARA reporting requirements, including new enforcement mechanisms. Tie that to an update of the Hatch Act that would place meaningful, criminal constraints on US citizens undermining our democracy abroad.
Make clear to your constituents that this core problem will remain a powerful obstacle to the reforms they want to see even after Trump is defeated unless we seize this opportunity. Merely advocating for this, loudly and insistently, turns public focus where it belongs, onto the President’s finances. This is most consequential, meaningful stand you can hope to take for your district and your country.
The first anger you’ll face over that stand will come from your own leadership. There are reasons your party’s leadership isn’t terribly concerned about this matter, and those reasons aren’t pretty.
Though it may seem bold or reckless, there is actually very little reason not to make a nuisance of yourself over the President’s finances. Few if any of the legislative matters you might pursue on otherwise worthy subjects can pass the Senate or win the President’s signature anyway. There’s not a single legislative effort, not even your bill supporting the goals and ideals of Engineers Week, or the Barack Obama Highway Act, that are worthy of any compromise on Trump’s financial disclosures. May as well drop the pretense and seize this fleeting opportunity for reform.
If you feel the urge to point out that this matter is “working its way through the courts,” then I’ll remind you of the thousand or so little brown children who have been sent to concentration camps since the courts banned the practice. We all loved living under the rule of law and the separation of powers. We won’t restore that system issuing polite complaints. Unless we find a way to attack the pipeline of money corrupting our politics, we won’t restore that system by voting either.
You may explain that there’s nothing you can do. You might be right. If that’s the case then you should come home now. What’s the point, really?
If this assessment seems too glum, then I strongly encourage you to seek out your colleague from the other side of the aisle, Will Hurd, before he moves on. Ask him whether any of the compromises he made to preserve his “effectiveness” were worth it. Ask him whether he feels that he accomplished anything. If he claims he has, ask him for specifics and listen closely as he hedges. Watch his face. Watch his eyes.
How do you think you’ll feel in a few years about your accomplishments in Congress? After all the financial sacrifices, the time spent away from your family, endless hours walking blocks and speaking to constituents, how will it feel to have been beaten down by a system that leaves you unable to represent your constituents? How will it feel to leave office after so much effort and sacrifice knowing you threw away your shot? Ask Will Hurd. For that matter, ask Peter Roskam.
Representative Casten, you have made remarkable personal sacrifices to earn a chance to represent suburban Chicago voters in Congress. Thank you. You may be starting to realize just how much you sacrificed, and for how little.
You are sitting in that office in a historic moment, with a historic opportunity to serve your constituents. You may not have a lot of power, but you have a platform we gave you. Please don’t waste it. Do everything you physically can to tear down this pipeline of money breaking our system. Recognize the unique vulnerability presented by this President’s corruption. Your constituents know what you’re up against, and we know the limits of the power you hold. Use what you have while you can.
Thank you, and good luck.