Former South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney is getting criticized for being so open about Washington's dirty secret: that money means access and open doors.
"It sounds like Mick is swimming in the swamp more than draining the swamp, and it's a problem," said Bob Inglis, another former South Carolina congressman.
Inglis' comments came a day after Mulvaney, the interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, admitted to meeting with lobbyists as a South Carolina U.S. representative but favored those who sunk dollars into his campaign.
"We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress," Mulvaney told 1,300 banking executives and lobbyists Tuesday at the annual conference of the American Bankers Association in Washington.
"If you're a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you're a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you."
Mulvaney, who represented the Upstate 5th Congressional District until President Donald Trump tapped him to be his budget director, reiterated that he always met with constituents regardless of their financial contributions.
"People coming from back home to tell people in Congress what issues are important to them is one of the fundamental underpinnings of our representative democracy, and you have to continue to do it," Mulvaney said.
Inglis, a former Republican congressman for the 4th Congressional District anchored in Greenville, said his former colleague's actions are emblematic of a larger issue: A Republican Party letting its leaders get away with breaking promises and dubious actions.
"To me, it's consistent with the swashbuckling kind of approach of the Trump administration that thinks they can say whatever they want to say, demean public discourse and demean their offices to sound like it's an auction for time based on how much you paid in," he said.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., on Wednesday told reporters in Washington he wants clarification from Mulvaney about his comments.
"I wouldn't know if a lobbyist has given me a dime or 10 dimes," Meadows told The Hill.
Are Mulvaney's access standards unethical or is this just business as usual in politics?
Bill English, a political economist with an ethics background at Georgetown University's School of Business, said people would be surprised to learn federal lawmakers spend about 60 percent of their time dialing for dollars.
"In some senses, what (Mulvaney) said reminds me of that scene in 'Casablanca,' where the policeman says he's shocked — shocked — to find out there was gambling going on in the establishment just before taking his share," English said.
In reality, English said, Mulvaney is probably not the only one doing this, noting it depends on how lobbying is defined.
For example, a quid pro quo, where a donor's money is given to a candidate in explicit exchange for the politician's official favor, is illegal.
But the question, English said, is whether Mulvaney's hierarchy resulted in direct actions — not necessarily access.
"We have this elaborate dance in American politics where there are certain lines you can't cross over, but the reality on the ground is that what (Mulvaney is) talking about is the modus operandi of those running for office," he said.
"In some sense, though, putting this out in the air might catalyze and reinvigorate interest in campaign finance issues moving forward," he added.
Mulvaney received $684,520 from political action committees for his 2016 reelection bid, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.