It pays to be a politician—literally.
That’s the argument of conservative commentator Matt Lewis’s new book Filthy Rich Politicians, lambasting the culture of corruption in politics that stems from elected officials monetizing their power in the most flagrant possible ways.
The timing of the book’s publication comes at a populist moment, with the hit song "Rich Men North of Richmond" having topped the Billboard charts and reflecting widespread angst about the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. Lewis, refreshingly, is able to criticize the excesses of the ruling class without getting mired in the self-defeating grievance that defines so much of today’s populist movement.
Through outlining too-good-to-be-true book deals to hiring family members on staff to capitalizing on all-too-timely stock trades, Lewis takes readers through an eye-opening tour of lawmakers’ conflicts of interest that leave so many Americans jaded toward the Swamp that is Washington, D.C.
As Lewis puts it: "The rich get elected and the elected get rich."
Some of the examples that Lewis presents are so familiar that they’re often taken for granted. The average compensation for a politician’s book deal is often higher than their annual salary. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), who touts herself as a progressive populist, raked in $2.8 million from book royalties and advances between 2014-2018—over 15 times the salary she makes each year in Washington.
He lays out the case against lawmakers of both parties making suspiciously timed stock trades that he argues would be viewed as insider trading coming from anyone less privileged. Lewis details the controversy surrounding former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr dumping at least $630,000 in stock shares after receiving a confidential briefing about COVID-19 before the pandemic—a case that was investigated by the FBI, but one where he was ultimately not charged with a crime.
He also suggests, with mostly circumstantial evidence, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi is guilty of insider trading for seeing her net worth triple from 2006 to 2020 thanks to her husband’s well-timed stock trades.
His section on famous politicians’ family members profiting on their family name is awfully timely, given the controversies surrounding Hunter Biden and his relationships with sketchy foreign business investors, as he looked to profit on his family name. Lewis gives a handy Cliffs Notes version of the Biden family’s "shady business deals," including lesser-known controversies involving his brothers Frank and James.
Lewis then sums up the Trump laundry list of financial scandals and conflicts of interest, citing Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner parlaying his time working on Middle East diplomacy into securing a $2 billion Saudi investment for a fund led by the Saudi crown prince. "The allegations leveled at Trump are too numerous to litigate here," Lewis writes.
Lewis blames politics as a game skewed to the wealthy, pointing out that the median net worth of a congressman is about 12 times higher than the average American. But after reading his book, it seems clear that most of the problems with money in politics come from the demand side—the desire to be famous, rich, or well-connected that the political life provides.
Children of political privilege—think Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney—usually have been more immune from the trappings of Washington than those who suddenly find their moment of fame in the nation’s capital. It’s harder to corrupt someone who already has it all financially than it is for someone who suddenly goes from pauper to prince.
Indeed, the sudden rise to fame by political underdogs often leads to the most unanticipated consequences. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) went from being seen as a working-class hero to being feted at the Met Gala wearing an expensive designer dress (ironically, with the words "Tax the Rich" scrawled on it). The perks of power have turned Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.) from the ultimate anti-establishment figure to a trusted inside ally of House speaker Kevin McCarthy.
And while it may be difficult for a working-class hero to build the connections and raise the money necessary to mount a top campaign, candidates with excessive wealth often find themselves struggling to relate to the average American—and frequently underperform. Just look at the 2020 presidential campaign of businessman Michael Bloomberg, who spent over $1 billion of his own money to amass just 55 delegates.
Indeed, of the 44 congressional candidates who spent over $1 million of their own money in last year’s midterms, just 6 of them prevailed. The list of notable unsuccessful self-funders included celebrities like Dr. Mehmet Oz, and baseball team owners like Ohio state Sen. Matt Dolan.
Lewis offers a lengthy list of thoughtful solutions to the problem of draining the swamp, from calling for stock trading bans, prohibiting lobbying for ex-members, and implementing term limits (among others).
But his most important insight is probably the most politically unpopular: Pay members of Congress (and their staffs) more. Lewis notes that congressional pay has declined since the 1960s, adjusted for inflation, and the salary of public servants is significantly lower than the lawyers, lobbyists, corporate executives, and other bigwigs they regularly interact with.
Given all the ugliness of politics these days, with every unfavorable nugget of a candidate’s personal life mined for public consumption, it’s a sad but true reality that it may take more money within the system to counteract the bad influence of outside temptations.
Filthy Rich Politicians: The Swamp Creatures, Latte Liberals, and Ruling-Class Elites Cashing in on America
by Matt Lewis
Center Street, 256 pp., $29
Josh Kraushaar is the editor in chief of Jewish Insider, author of Axios' weekly Sunday Sneak newsletter, and a Fox News Radio political analyst.