What does it mean to “drain the swamp”?
That was the promise Donald Trump made on the campaign trail to signal his intention to clean up Washington. But he has already waded in pretty far without offering any plan to pull the plug. It’s not too late to make one.
After appointing a transition committee heavy on Washington insiders, Trump has reiterated his promise to bar appointees from becoming lobbyists for five years after leaving the administration. That may have merit in principle, but in practice it would be little more than window dressing. Many who leave government service to work for lobbying firms never register as lobbyists because the law requiring registration is so broadly written and so laxly enforced. During the campaign, Trump promised to push legislation toughening the law. As president, he should make it a priority.
Even if he does, though, it won’t transform Washington’s pay-to-play culture. And Trump has already missed an important chance to make a bolder move.
Rather than pay for his inaugural festivities himself, he is taking the same route that President Barack Obama did in 2012: selling access. For $1 million, donors can get a variety of VIP opportunities, including lunch with “the ladies of the first families,” an “intimate dinner” with Mike Pence and his wife, and a “candlelight dinner” that includes an appearance by Trump and his wife, Melania. For $100,000, donors can still get the ladies luncheon, but their candlelight dinner will be far less romantic: Only cabinet nominees will attend.
Trump is already well on his way to raising about $75 million to cover five days of parties. Yet a man who claims to be worth more than $10 billion ought to either foot the bill himself or scale back the events. Or he could turn the inauguration parties into charity balls, as Presidents Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Theodore Roosevelt did. Galas funded by special interests lie at the mouth of the swamp.
Trump says he understands pay-to-play better than anyone, having participated in the game for decades. He’s now in a position to change the rules for the public’s benefit, and he could hardly find a more popular crusade: His own win in November reflected strong bipartisan public support for reducing the role of special-interest money in politics.
The most important change Trump should push is a limit on campaign contributions from lobbyists and others with business before the federal government. Federal law already bars bond dealers from donating to state and local candidates who have influence over bond sales. It’s a sensible rule that has served the industry well. But why should bond dealers be barred from making political contributions while lobbyists for government contractors are not?
“Drain the swamp” was a promising campaign slogan. To fulfill it, Trump will need a more aggressive agenda for cleaning up the toxins that have made Americans sick of politics as usual.