November 4, 2014

Inside the House Republican book club


Pictured: not a club pick.

Pictured: not a club pick.

Paul S. Atkins doesn’t like book clubs because they’re too exclusive.

He said as much in the testimony he gave in May to the House Financial Services Committee, where he argued against regulating mutual funds and threw shade at Tim Geithner:

There is a sort of book club mentality at work here—a sense that those in the charmed circle have figured out what was wrong and that all the benighted others should get out of the way of the prescribed solution—regardless of whether those others are independent expert agencies. Indeed, it is fair to say that Secretary Geithner’s new book carries hints of that perspective.

If you don’t know who Atkins is (his Wikipedia page is about as detailed as a candy wrapper), he’s not just any staunch anti-regulator; he was also the commissioner of the SEC from 2002-2008. You may recall this was a somewhat…eventful period in the world of deregulated finance. However, the lack of regard in which Atkins holds book clubs is not shared by his addressees, the Republicans of the House Financial Services Committee . They love a good book club! Especially when it’s used to facilitate legal bribery campaign donations from lobbyists!

The New York Times reports that such a club exists. The monthly, unassumingly named First Tuesday Luncheon Series has a Republican member of the Committee provide a book of his or her (but almost overwhelmingly his) choosing. This book can be the Congressperson’s personal or political favorite, which is great because it means I don’t have to write any jokes about this book club because they write themselves.

Some titles inject an uncharacteristically sophisticated element into a fund-raising event: Representative Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a psychologist, once brought his own book, The Angry Child, inspiring a debate over how to handle unruly children that seemed relevant for Congress. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota brought The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. One attendee recalled that Representative Andy Barr of Kentucky elected to read Seabiscuit.

Then, a gaggle of lobbyists for the finance industry buy tickets to attend – and the ticket is a donation to whichever Congressperson picked this month’s book! The congressperson then delivers a speech about the book. Then the lobbyists speak up with their thoughts on the book, “clutching copies signed not by the author but by the lawmaker” (seriously). Lawmakers collect money, lobbyists get to reinforce their squicky Special Relationship, and everyone goes home feeling happy and a little more erudite.

Book clubs seem inoffensive, which as Dealbook points out, makes this particular one newsworthy. Stressing its “quaintness”, Dealbook also bluntly reminds us that money is the octopoid scourge of politics and not even book clubs are safe from its grasping tentacles (in so many words).

That happens to be the key to its success. Without raising any eyebrows, the club has helped show the committee’s fund-raising prowess — cementing its reputation as the “cash committee,” a magnet for donations from the financial industry.

While this book club may differ from most (box scotch instead of box wine), it does share one quality; most of the lobbyists don’t actually read the assigned book. A practice they may want to avoid continuing if one of them accidentally picks Flash Boys.

All joking aside, it’s no surprise that the tawdry and manifold world of political fundraisers contains at least one book club. Yes, the club is run by Jed Hansarling, one of Wall Street’s BFFs. Yes, it’s another way of perpetuating the water-carrying and backslapping that allows brutal financial downturns and aftermaths to destroy millions of livelihoods, but this one has a classy premise.

But maybe this does provide the hard-driving lobbyists, and the relentlessly fundraising 32 men and two women of the RFSC, a relaxed floor on which to continue their seemingly necessary dance. They use a book as an afternoon escape from the absurdities and vicissitudes of Washington, even if they didn’t read it. What Paul Atkins called a “charmed circle” might also be a safe space.

In any case, the Republican midterm victories that roll in later today will be due, in some small part, to this book club. Let nobody tell you that in today’s America the printed word holds no power.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.