Ken Buck’s ‘Drain the Swamp’ book about Washington corruption names names, rips the dome off the Capitol
Author: Ernest Luning - April 20, 2017 - Updated: December 7, 2017
When U.S. Rep. Ken Buck first arrived in Washington, D.C., after winning election to Congress in 2014, it was the most amazing thing.
“You would think that you were in Vienna in some sort of fairy tale,” the Windsor Republican said. “The Army choir is singing, the filet mignon is on the plate, the speaker of the House, and you have a historian from the Library of Congress, and you are just wined and dined. And there’s one message in that wining and dining: If you play the game the way we want you to play the game, life is very good in Washington, D.C. I also learned the flip side of that — If you don’t play the game the way we want you to play the game, life is not going to be very pleasant for you in Washington, D.C.”
That initial insight is what set the stage for Buck’s time in Congress — he was re-elected to a second term representing Colorado’s 4th Congressional District in November — and also what got him thinking about what playing the game means, about why Congress can never seem to solve problems that are as plain as day to regular Americans, and why the country keeps piling up debt upon debt, year after year.
And it’s also what inspired him to blow the dome off Congress in his new book, “Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think,” published by conservative publishing house Regnery Publishing, which hit stands April 4 and was already topping online best-seller lists.
The night before its official publication, Buck discussed his book at a kick-off event at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, where more than 100 of his friends and supporters eagerly snapped up copies.
Buck, a former Weld County district attorney, goes behind the scenes and names names in the book. A scan of the book’s index reveals that he doesn’t name any fellow lawmakers from Colorado, though he pulls no punches when it comes to singling out GOP leaders in Congress and discussing the inner workings of the conservative and libertarian-leaning House Freedom Caucus, which Buck helped found.
Chuckling, Buck recalled a recent conversation with U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican congressman from Ohio and the original chair of the Freedom Caucus. After he’d read Buck’s book, Buck said, he approached Buck and put his arm around him. “And he asked, ‘Ken, how long you planning on staying in Congress?’ And I said, ‘Not real long,’ and he said, ‘That’s a good thing.’”
It was a steady theme at Buck’s book-launch event that he’s revealing secrets and calling out politicians on both sides of the aisle, and that he’s risking retaliation by exposing the dark deeds in the corridors of power.
Jeff Hunt, president of CCU’s Centennial Institute think tank, the event’s sponsor, introduced Buck as the only member of Congress to boast a 100-percent conservative rating from the Heritage Foundation.
Then he read from material promoting the book: “Lavish parties. Committee chairmanships for sale. Pay-to-play corruption. Backroom arm-twisting. Votes on major legislation going to the highest bidder. Welcome to Washington, D.C., the swamp that President Donald Trump was elected to drain.”
When he took the stage a few minutes later, Buck acknowledged that one of the publisher’s best lines — “Congressman Ken Buck is blowing the whistle on the real-life House of Cards in our nation’s capital” — had left him baffled, since he doesn’t watch much television and wasn’t familiar with the Netflix series House of Cards, which has explored tales of Washington intrigue and corruption for four seasons, but added that the real-life version is as sordid as any fiction.
“It is an insular process directed by power-hungry party elites who live like kings and govern like bullies,” he writes, in a line sure to endear him to House leadership and Republican power-brokers.
Buck said he was thrilled to kick off the book’s promotional events at CCU because, he said, it is an institution that stands for the truth.
“If we have the truth, we can conquer all, and we don’t have the truth in D.C.,” he said.
He set the stage for the CCU audience by describing what he termed the most formative experience of his life, working on his aunt and uncle’s ranch in Wyoming, starting at age 12.
“The first night I was there, a bull had gotten out and gone into town, just like many of the ranch hands had gotten out and gone into town,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “And that bull was in a pen of heifers, and the owner of those heifers was not very happy.” So, Buck recounts, he went into town with his uncle and his cousin, and — even though he had never driven a vehicle — Buck’s uncle put him behind the wheel of a pickup truck with a stick shift. With each of them driving a pickup truck, they were ultimately able to persuade the bull to return to the ranch.
“The next day I was on a horse, moving cattle, and the next day I was on a tractor, and the next day I was stacking hay. And the entire time, from the time I was 12 years old working summers on that ranch, to the time I was 23, graduated college and started law school in Wyoming, I never once called the federal government for help,” Buck said.
“My uncle, my aunt, nobody ever called the federal government for help. There were people who cursed the federal government — they were upset with the Endangered Species Act, they were upset with the tax code, they were upset with so many things about the federal government, but never once did those people from rural Wyoming ever say, ‘I need the federal government to come help me with this.’” All sorts of things happened over the years, he added, “and neighbor helped neighbor overcome the problems.”
That established, Buck, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Rules, started peeling back the layers of assumption and misinformation — and outright lies, he maintained — for the appreciative crowd.
“What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to keep secret, they’re trying to suppress the knowledge of what goes on back there,” he said. “I have to pay $450,000 to serve on the committees I serve on. It’s outrageous. And it’s not to reduce the national debt, folks, it’s to the Republican Party. You pay money to get a committee assignment. Where do you raise that money? You raise the money from the special interests in Washington, D.C. And what do the special interests expect you to do for that money? They expect you to vote the way they want you to vote.”
Shaking his head with a look of disbelief on his face, Buck continued with the sordid tale.
“So there’s this little game. They want to see those dues increased, because then you need them more,” he said, referring to the special interests and their lobbyists. “And when you need them more, they own you. And you have to vote — and we never got in D.C. what we have in Weld County, which is no sales tax and balance your budget — no, we vote to pile more and more debt onto our national debt. Think about it. This year, we have no major war, we do not have a major recession, and we have $600 billion in deficit spending. When do we get to a balanced budget? We don’t under the current rules.”
As an example, he discussed an episode he writes about in some detail in his book, a complicated vote to grant authority — retroactively — to President Obama to negotiate a trade agreement with Pacific Rim countries, known as the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. Along with his fellow Freedom Caucus members, Buck said, he stood up to House GOP leaders. That’s when he first felt how wrathful the establishment Republicans could be and when they got a taste of the newcomers’ refusal to play the game quietly.
“We voted against a rule,” Buck said. “In Congress, there’s a real simple law you follow, and it’s that you never cross leadership on a procedural vote. So we voted against a rule. I was the president of the freshman class. Now, president of the freshman class is a great title, because it doesn’t have anything to do with anything. You don’t have any extra voting privileges, you don’t have any committee assignments. All it is, is the group of freshman, the first day they meet they elect somebody.”
Buck joked that he didn’t know if he had been chosen by his fellow freshman Republicans because he was tallest or for some other reason, but he emphasized that the position had zero power: “There’s no job function,” he said. “You can call a meeting and nobody’ll show up.”
Nonetheless, he became a prime target after the upstarts had bucked the bosses.
“They decided to go after me as president of the freshman class,” he said, his expression caught between amusement and disgust. “It was a meaningless position! If you had a meaningless position and they went after you, you’d say, ‘Sure, go ahead, take it, I don’t care.’ I didn’t do that. I got all my friends together, and we shut down eight members of Congress’s phones. They had to turn the phone onto their voicemail and not take calls anymore. We had tens of thousands of people across America call and say, ‘You can’t take this position.’ They had no idea what the president of the freshman class did — neither did I — but they did know it was wrong to retaliate.”
Buck said leadership and the old guard in Congress sometimes enforces order by telling members “absolute lies.” As the audience at CCU gasped, he continued. “The first time they told me some lies, I was, ‘Oh, OK,’ and then some of my friends told me, ‘Psst, it’s a lie.’ And I said, ‘No, they’re Republicans — no.’” He shook his head firmly. “It’s a lie, folks.”
“One of the really eye openers for me,” Buck said, “is the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973.”
The bill came with a five-year sunset provision, he noted. “They say, ‘If this isn’t good, if this doesn’t work, it’s going to go away, we’re going to sunset this in five years.’” So in 1978, he said, Congress reauthorized the Endangered Species Act, but it hasn’t been reauthorized since, and it just keeps staying on the books, even though it should have disappeared more than three decades ago.
“There are over 5,000 species listed on the Endangered Species Act,” Buck said. “In the history of the Endangered Species Act, 17 species have been taken off of the Endangered Species Act. So we have 5,000 critters that are endangered, but we’ve only taken 17 off. So the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service was in front of the committee I was on, and I asked him, ‘How many of these critters were actually saved, of the 17?’ And he said, ‘Well, 12 were extinct before we put them on, and when we found that out we took them off.’ So five out of 5,000 have been saved.”
As the audience scowled, Buck smiled.
“The bald eagle one of them, and that’s great — I’m glad we learned what we learned about DDT, and I’m glad that we saved our national symbol. But, understand something, it’s not used as a shield for fuzzy little critters. It is used as a sword against energy development, against residential development, against those things that we need in our economy in this country. And that sword is used because our federal government has created a system that is now being abused. And Congress refuses to do its job, refuses to do the oversight and take the tough votes that are necessary.”
And there was his chance to underline the thesis of his book and explain how Congress has gotten to be a metaphoric swamp existing on top of the actual one underneath all the asphalt and concrete.
“So, why?” Buck asked. “Why does Congress do that? The answer is very simple. We don’t want to lose our jobs. If (a Republican) in a tough seat in New York state votes against the Endangered Species Act, what happens to them? They have all these commercials run against them — ‘They hate the fuzzy critters and they’re a terrible person and we should throw this person out of office.’ So selfishness is the No. 1 priority in Congress. So we avoid tough votes at any expense — any expense.”
Buck offered as an example an actual vote to fix a problem he said he’d been acquainted with since his days as a prosecutor in Greeley. It wasn’t a rare occurrence, he recalled, for someone to stop by the office with a story that went something like this: Many years ago, the visitor would say, he’d passed a bad rent check, for instance, while he was in college and the D.A. had offered to plead it down to restitution and a felony bad-check charge, which sounded good at the time. Now, decades later, Buck related, that felony record from years ago made it impossible to purchase a firearm.
There was a process in place to get a waiver, apparently, but year after year, Congress would forbid the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from processing waiver requests, and Buck and some other Republicans in Congress wanted to know why that couldn’t be reversed. So one of them offered a rider on an Appropriations bill to do just that. And that’s when the fireworks started.
“What Democrats say about Republicans is, ‘You’re trying to give guns to rapists and murderers and other people.’ Everybody has this image of a felon, and when it comes to Democrats reinstating voting rights, felons are felons, they’re great human beings. When it comes to Republicans giving a grandfather who has never committed a serious crime, never committed a violent crime in his life, a gun so he can go hunting with his grandchild, well, that’s really terrible,” he said.
“So I was berated for 45 minutes by a subcommittee chairman on Appropriations,” Buck recalled. “I was told, if this goes to a vote, we will lose the majority as Republicans in Congress. The Democrats were huddling. And I kept looking over at the Democrats huddling. And I’m getting yelled at in this ear, and I’m looking at them and they’re huddling. They were afraid that I was running this motion to run commercials against them saying that they are soft on guns, and you don’t want to be soft on guns in a lot of Democrats’ districts, either. So the speaker asked for the ayes, and I say aye, and he asked for the nays, and there were no nays.”
So by all appearances, Buck said, their gambit had worked and the other side had blinked. The subcommittee chairman who had been yelling in his ear moments earlier even came up and shook Buck’s hand, congratulating him and telling him what a great job he’d done.
But like so many victories in Washington, this one was short-lived. Buck gave a rueful smile and continued the story.
“What they did was they got together, and the bill goes over to the Senate, and they take the language out in the Senate,” he said. “So it was never part of the bill ultimately, and they knew they could dodge tough votes. But they will do anything they can to dodge tough votes. And that’s why we have a deficit, and that’s why we’re always going to have a deficit, as long as the incentives are set up the way they’re set up.”
Then, Buck circled back to reiterate some of his points and tie it into a knot.
“I have to pay to be on a committee; I have to raise the money that it takes for that committee assignment; I have to go to the people that want more goodies,” he said. “And unless we as an American group, unless we come together and we demand a balanced budget amendment, we demand we have to choose between A and B, we will never get Congress to do its job.”
After Buck had finished and had opened the floor to questions, tea party leader and radio host Randy Corporon asked Buck a question that had to be on a lot of minds at the presentation.
Calling Buck’s book “extremely courageous … well written and entertaining,” Corporon said he wondered whether writing the book was going to thwart some of Buck’s longer-term goals in Washington “because you really have kind of shot yourself in the political foot.”
Buck nodded and looked around the room, recalling that he’d praised CCU as an institution that stood for truth.
“I believe in the truth, and I believe that I’m in Congress for a reason, that I have been blessed in going to Congress, and I believe that if I stand up for the truth, that good things will happen,” he said. “It’s those that don’t stand up for the truth that are going to have problems down the road. Now, my future may not be four years from now, five years from now in Congress. I gotta tell you, I sleep well at night. I slept well as a prosecutor, I slept well — really well — as a ranch hand. But I really believe that my job is to speak truth to power, and I’m doing that with this book, and I will let the chips fall where they may.”