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Rep. Ken Buck: Washington Swamp Is Worse Than You Think

Rep. Ken Buck: Washington Swamp Is Worse Than You Think

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

By    |   Monday, 10 April 2017 12:47 PM

In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, "Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think," Rep. Ken Buck explains what really goes on behind closed doors in Congress.

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crises preserve their neutrality."

— President John F. Kennedy

There are three types of lies, according to Mark Twain: lies, damn lies, and statistics. After I served in the U.S. House of Representatives for only two months, I discovered a fourth type of lie, perhaps the biggest ever told — House budgets.

As a first term congressman, I was excited to read the House Budget Committee's 2015 plan for balancing the budget in ten years. What I found alarmed me; it was all make-believe: projections without plans, assumptions that were in some cases contradictory. The budget claimed savings from repealing Obamacare (still a wish rather than a reality), while simultaneously counting Obamacare taxes as ongoing revenue. The budget plan magically cut food stamps and welfare by $1 trillion without a plan do so and tossed in $147 billion in assumed "dynamic" economic growth for good measure.

After reading this fiction disguised as a budget, I told a reporter, "I don't know anyone who believes we're going to balance the budget in ten years. It's all hooey." One member of the budget committee had the gall to say of this fantasy plan that "a budget is a moral document; it talks about where your values are." All I can say is that lies, damn lies, and imaginary statistics don't represent my values.

A member of the Republican Whip asked if I was a yes or no vote on the budget; I told him I was neither. I was a hell no! "But why?" he asked. "The budget balances in ten years." I asked him how long he had been in Congress.

"Fourteen years."

"Did they tell you ten years ago, that the budget would balance in ten years?"

He sighed. "You're right, this budget will never balance."

It's bad enough that the budget plan was designed to deceive the American people. Even worse was that House leadership handed us talking points to explain to our constituents how all these lies, damn lies, and false statistics balanced the budget, as if they did.

Washington is a swamp because Congress (and the Washington bureaucracy) wants it to be; and most Americans have been badly misinformed about why Washington doesn't work for them. It has nothing to do with gridlock or partisanship or political bickering. One of my first revelations when I became a congressman was how non-adversarial the atmosphere was. There was plenty of bipartisan agreement that Washington should increase the size of the federal government and spend money it doesn't have. Members of Congress are, for the most part, fat and happy alligators who feel pretty darned comfortable in the swamp of Washington.


And there's the problem. Most of us didn't grow up thinking about politics or economics the way they do in Washington. I certainly learned a different set of values from my grandfather, who opened a shoe repair store in Greeley, Colorado, in the 1930s.

My parents, who grew up during the Great Depression, and my grandparents taught me the value of hard work. My mom was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who arrived in New York City as teens with nothing but a few dollars between them. She grew up in New York City while my dad grew up in Greeley, Colorado, not far from where I live now.

My parents had a very simple philosophy for me when I was a teen — either play sports or get to work. So I did both. I lettered in five different sports, and even managed to play football for four years while I attended Princeton University.

And because I wanted spending money, I worked too, and learned about the respect and responsibility that comes from hard work. I worked, variously, as a janitor — stripping and re-waxing floors, scraping gum off desks, and cleaning toilets — as a furniture hauler, as a truck driver on moving vans, and then as a crew foreman.

My favorite job by far was working on my aunt and uncle's ranch in Wyoming, which I started doing when I was 12. I spent most summers there and learned to stack hay with a stacker — and then to re-stack it by hand when I messed up. One day I would be on a horse moving cattle, and the next day I'd be on a truck driving silage from the field to the silage pit.

I loved working at the ranch because it was such a peaceful atmosphere, and we solved problems. We had to. If we didn't do it, no one else would. No one on the ranch looked to Washington to fix broken fences. If a neighbor had a problem, another neighbor helped fix the problem. People came together to help one another with everything from helping a child get an education to helping a family in need of food or clothing.

It was, and still is, a community with very little government and a whole lot of neighborly interaction. It made a lasting impression on me, especially as I began my career in the world of politics after graduating from college.

I worked in the Wyoming state legislature, eventually got my law degree, and became an assistant U.S. attorney. It was then, as a prosecutor employed by the federal Department of Justice, that I saw how things took longer and costed more when Washington was involved. And I learned that results are often secondary to political concerns.

After stepping away from government for a period in private business, I re-entered politics, this time as the district attorney for Weld County, Colorado. Over my three terms, the adult crime rate decreased by 50 percent and we worked aggressively to deter and prevent juvenile crime. We got things done.

That's how America works, at least at the local level. We see a problem and we work together to solve it.

But in Washington that's not how it works at all. Members of Congress have only one problem that they're serious about solving — and that's getting re-elected. And they're convinced that the path to reelection lies through bribing the American people with endless government programs we can't afford. That's not my agenda at all.


When I decided to run for Congress, I was motivated to make a difference. In early 2013, I was diagnosed with cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage four. I had twenty-two tumors in my neck and twelve under my arm with cancer on my spleen and eight different bones in my body. Doctors told me that if I didn't have chemotherapy immediately I would be dead in three months; and even with immediate chemotherapy I had only a 50 percent chance of surviving.

But after two months of aggressive chemotherapy, another PET scan showed the cancer to be fully in remission. My doctors said my speedy recovery surprised and amazed them. To me, it was nothing less than a miracle from God. My last chemo session was on July 5, 2013. I called it my own Independence Day.

The entire ordeal reminded me that life is precious and time is short. I decided to run for Congress to see what good I could do with the time I had.

I didn't go to Congress to make a career, because I realized I could be dead tomorrow. I do believe that God made me for a purpose, and while I don't know how many terms I will serve in Congress, I do know that I want to use my time there to help solve the nation's problems. I want to get things done. But I have discovered that in Washington politicians define "getting things done" as looking out for their own interests, not yours, and I've become convinced that while we need principled leadership in Congress — lots of it — Congress will never reform itself because congressmen believe that reform is against their self-interests.


When I first arrived in Washington as a congressman in 2015, we had a Democratic president and a Republican-controlled House and Senate. I had enough political experience to consider myself a political realist, but even I was surprised at how aggressively Congress avoids solving problems.

I expected gridlock; instead, I found Democrats and Republicans cooperating to bankrupt the country by avoiding tough budget choices.

America is going broke — fast. There are no two ways about it. We now exceed a mind-numbing $20 trillion in debt and we're going deeper into debt every day. Just in the time it took to read this sentence, America will be on the hook for another $65,000! Yet members of both parties continue to crank out federal budgets full of waste, with hundreds of billions of dollars in unauthorized expenditures — all the while telling America they've done the best they could do to preserve the freedoms we all hold dear.

In fact, they are undermining our freedoms every day. They undermine them with job-killing regulations and bureaucracy. And they undermine them by enslaving us and our children and our grandchildren with a heavy manacle of debt that threatens to destroy our economy.

Admiral Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the single greatest security threat we face — the one that keeps him awake at night — is not China, Russia, North Korea, or even Iran. It is our national debt. He added, "We just can't be the country that we're capable of ... if we keep spending ourselves into oblivion. We won't be able to make the investments [we need]." He's right. Payments on the debt are already crowding out other priorities in our federal budget, including defense and infrastructure spending; and Congress has no realistic strategy — yet — to solve this problem. On the contrary, those in Congress have been content to make it worse, expanding that debt balloon as far as they can, because they think it wins votes and guarantees their power.


Money rules in Washington.

Most Americans don't realize that influence in Congress comes with a price tag. Members are required to pay for committee assignments. Chairmen are required to pay for their chairmanships. The speaker, leader, and Whip compete for the leadership position and then must pay millions of dollars for the honor of holding the office. Lobbyists, corporations, and wealthy individuals who need something from Congress raise the money.

For Republicans, all the money raised by these charges goes to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), supposedly to help get members elected. The reality is that NRCC funds are used to coerce members to vote with the leadership. When members don't vote the "right way," the funding dries up from the donor class, members are pressured to step down from their committee assignments, and the NRCC refuses to help finance their campaigns. I'll reveal more about the pay-to-play system in chapter three.

For now the important thing to know is that the result of this system is that members routinely vote for defective legislation in order to please party leaders and get money for their reelection campaigns instead of doing what is right for America. Congressional leadership, lobbyists, and outside interest groups collaborate to make the game work. They direct decision-making in what used to be known as the people's House.

By playing the game, these elected men and women who swore to uphold the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic, trade the long-term security of our children and grandchildren for short-term political favors. That trade doesn't only lead to financial bankruptcy; it is also morally bankrupt.

I am a Republican, but the moment we put party over principle, we've lost. Both major political parties are guilty on this one. That's why I call the problem we face today bipartisan bankruptcy. Both parties have no problem letting the debt rise if that means they can avoid taking tough stands or making difficult decisions.

Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts with whom I agree on very little, was correct when he said: "This notion that members of Congress are power-hungry — absolutely the opposite. Most members like to duck tough issues." Exactly right. While some do pursue power and riches, most prefer to keep their heads down, look out for their own interests, and maintain the status quo — even if that means ignoring problems like our out-ofcontrol national debt. Everyone uses government to get what he or she wants. And if that happens, our nation has no hope of a freedomfilled future.


It is true that former President Barack Obama was a calamity when it came to our exploding national debt. But there's plenty of blame to go around. Congress is supposed to have the power of the purse, and yet the federal debt rose when the Democrats controlled Congress and it rose when Republicans controlled Congress. It is a bipartisan problem. We now owe more than $20 trillion in 2017 — and that isn't even counting the unfunded liabilities we owe through programs like Social Security and Medicare. When we factor those numbers in, conservative estimates put our actual debt at more than $90.6 trillion. My friend Congressman David Brat, a former economics professor, estimates we will be facing $127 trillion in unfunded liabilities alone a mere ten years from now.

Meanwhile, our political leaders always seem to have an excuse. When Republicans reclaimed the House in 2010 with a record-setting wave of new inductees, debt levels continued to rise. Republican leaders told voters they needed control of the Senate to make a difference. In 2014, voters gave them the Senate, and the House experienced another massive influx of Republican representatives. Yet still the precipitous slide into bankruptcy has continued.

Can President Donald Trump make a difference? We'll see. The problems before us are massive, and Trump has his own spending priorities, but at least the new administration has a commitment to action and acknowledges, as surprisingly few have done, that the national debt is one of the serious problems it has to tackle.


My message is not popular with the privileged in Washington and in the halls of Congress. I've had to face the fact that I will never be liked by those who want to maintain the status quo.

I checked into a Dallas hotel one evening and rushed to get in a workout. I was running on a treadmill next to another fellow who was watching television on his monitor. As we ran, I saw my picture appear on his monitor with a caption that read, "Worst Person in America," though I couldn't hear what was being said. The man looked over at me, looked at the monitor again, and then scowled back in my direction. Then he shook his head, ripped his earphones out and stormed out of the gym. I prayed silently, Lord, there are people who hate me when I speak the truth. And the words of the Truth-teller from Nazareth came to mind: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first."

I believe the stakes are too high to remain silent. If we do not demand change now, America and all we love about her will be lost —  and our children and grandchildren will know nothing but the very burdens from which our founders freed us just a few centuries ago.

Anyone who reads history knows how civilizations collapse:

They spend too much. Budget crises have always been early warning signs of the collapse of an empire or a regime, and the bigger the government, the harder it falls.

Their people stop producing. Civilizations grow when their people are hard-working, self-sacrificing, and entrepreneurial — and they collapse when they become lazy and self-centered and dependent on the state.

They become corrupt. As the power of the state grows, so does official corruption, which the people are expected to overlook (or practice themselves on a smaller level).

They lose their why. Eventually, civilizations lose sight of why they came to exist in the first place — their identity, their purpose. When a nation loses its sense of shared identity, the end is near, because no one is all that interested in fighting or sacrificing for a cause or an identity long forgotten.

I, for one, do not believe we have completely forgotten who we are as Americans, but I do believe that our Republic is in grave danger. Trump was elected president to drain the Washington swamp. There is no national problem more pressing than that, because that problem touches virtually every other problem we face. This is our time, our opportunity to choose freedom over bondage and noble sacrifice that will help secure America's liberty over ignoble selfishness that will surely forfeit it. America's future is at stake. We need to drain the swamp in Washington, and we need to do it now.


In this book, I will reveal what really goes on behind closed doors in Congress. It's not pretty, to be sure — and it's worse than you think.

The stories I will share will both shock and alarm you. But it is not a lost cause. I will also propose solutions for making Congress care about what is best for America — and you — once again. The solutions are not far-fetched and have already been proven to work when attempted. But they involve getting power out of the hands of those in Washington and returning it to the American people. Thomas Paine is widely attributed as saying, "It is the duty of the Patriot to protect his country from his government." We are charged with such a duty now.

Rep. Ken Buck is a Republican from Windsor, Colorado, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He is also a member of the Judiciary Subcommittees on Immigration and Border Security and Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. His book, "Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think," will be published Tuesday by Regnery.

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In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, "Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think," Rep. Ken Buck explains what really goes on behind closed doors in Congress.
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Monday, 10 April 2017 12:47 PM
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