At 84, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo) isn’t ready to sit on the sidelines of national or local politics.
After 18 years in the U.S. Senate (1979-1997), Simpson stayed close to the political arena and is now a precinct committeeman for the Wyoming GOP. He also is a member of the ReFormers’ Caucus — a bipartisan group of former members of Congress and governors working to reduce the influence of money in politics.
“My dad always taught me, if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, then do,” Simpson said. “Instead of bitching, get in the game.”
Simpson spoke with WyoFile recently about the allure of Donald Trump and the crippling grip of money in politics — what he calls a cancer on American democracy. Here are a few highlights from the discussion:
WyoFile: What is the ReFormers’ Caucus?
Simpson: It’s just a group of, you know, Republicans and Democrats — guys who have been in Congress and know the horror of what’s happening with money in politics and how it’s just a cancer. … The little guy who is going to (donate $5 or $10) to either party is saying ‘what the hell? I saw the other day somebody gave $10 million, then another bunch gave $5 (million)’ and they don’t know who they are. They say ‘Well, that’s got to be corruption.’ To them that’s all that shows, it’s not even access. They think that people are on the take, and it’s very disturbing.
WyoFile: What does the caucus aim to do about it?
Simpson: There are several ways to go, you know, a Constitutional amendment bill — there are several of us working on that. … You can overturn it, and you can do that by legislation. But you know you’re not going to get that done when you have — I mean, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell isn’t for any kind of — any kind of limitation, ever. I mean, I voted for McCain-Feingold clear back down the road when I was in the Senate, and Mitch, he fights it tooth and nail. He feels very strongly, and as long as he’s the leader it won’t get done legislatively.
WyoFile: Does that mean the Democrats have to take control of the Senate to reform money in politics?
Simpson: No, it’s just people who are disgusted from both parties, and that’s what the hell the reformers are — they’re not Democrats or all Republicans. It’s a pretty good blend. All of us have felt the sting of having to raise the bucks, having to waste the time, having to beg and scrap and get out there — and be careful of sticking this bill in or the AARP will tear you up. Or the NRA will tear you up. Or the teachers will tear you up. Or the cowboys will tear you up. Sure. How do you think it works?
WyoFile: Do you think the Senate should give an up or down vote on a U.S. Supreme Court nominee by President Obama?
Simpson: The President should submit a name and then the [Senate] Judiciary Committee under [Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck] Grassley can decide what to do with it. But let him put the name in, and if they say we’re just not going to have any hearings during an election year I can tell you that is not an abnormal procedure. Good grief, I was on the committee for 18 years and you got into that last year of the presidency we said ‘The hell with it … we’ll bring it up, but we don’t have to put it on the floor or consider it in committee. But just to ignore the fact and say to the President don’t bother to send us one, I think that is not appropriate. … [President Obama] won’t pick a total left-wing screwball. He’ll pick a guy that will make the Republicans scratch their heads, for a little while.
WyoFile: To what extent does money influence Wyoming politics?
Simpson: I don’t know. I was a lost sheep when I was in the State Legislature. I tried to pass disclosure laws. I didn’t get very far at all because … ‘Wait a minute, we’re Wyoming, we all know what everybody’s doing.’ Well, let me tell you, I’ll buy the drinks if that’s the truth. I mean there were guys sitting in that Legislature who own stock in the Union Pacific and trucking companies and railroads and oil. Hell, you didn’t know who the hell they were. Some of them, they listed their business in the little pamphlet as to who is on the floor of the House or Senate, but let me tell you I saw enough conflict there to last forever.
WyoFile: You endorsed U.S. House candidate Liz Cheney, would you advise that she doesn’t take super PAC money?
Simpson: I don’t know what she takes. I’ve not found out. All I know, Ann and I gave her a check. I have no idea. I’ve known [Liz Cheney] since she was 8 years old, and I got into a situation the last time she ran [against incumbent U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi] … And now that’s resolved and all is well. And I have great respect for her, and Dick and Lynne, and all this. There’s no breach there. … Ask her what she does with PAC money or whatever.
WyoFile: What should voters know about money in politics and campaigns?
Simpson: As long as you know where it’s coming from — all you have to do is get honest, and if a guy gives $10 million … who is he? What the hell did he do? What are his businesses? What’s he up to? … If you just had that you’d be way ahead of the game. … I can tell you one thing about [presidential candidate Donald] Trump. I … have no idea where we’re going on this, but I’ll tell you one thing; the basic reason people support Trump, when you get out in the country, and I do, is that, quote, ‘He ain’t on the take. He isn’t beholden to anybody.’ … Anybody missing that is just out to lunch. And don’t think it doesn’t mean something to people when they say, ‘I’m voting for him because he don’t take no money from anybody, and he dishes it out without somebody filtering it.’
WyoFile: But Donald Trump does accept campaign donations.
Simpson: Well sure, they all take money. I’m just saying that’s the image. Everything in politics is perception. There is no reality in politics, I ought to know. I was this or that, and the perception was this — you couldn’t overcome it with facts. The perception is that good ol’ Mr. D. Donald is clean as a hound’s tooth because he doesn’t take money from anybody. It doesn’t matter if he’s loaning it to his campaign, giving it back, whatever the hell the rig is.