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Drain the swamp. These three words, and the legitimate frustration many Americans have with Washington, D.C.’s revolving door and history of self-dealing, helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency.
Disrupting the Washington establishment was so important to Trump that he quickly signed an executive order in January 2017 that prohibited members of his administration from lobbying the federal agencies where they worked for five years after the end of their employment, and permanently barred them from lobbying on behalf of foreign governments. Some ethics experts were skeptical that loopholes remained, but cautiously optimistic of the move at the time.
On his way out of office, however, Trump effectively pulled the plug on his promise to drain the swamp. During his last days in office, Trump rescinded that 2017 executive order, opening up the floodgates for his administration to engage in the same practices he had railed against.
For anyone unconvinced, it should now be obvious: What we saw in Washington these past four years, with a Trump administration made up of billionaires and millionaires, family members, former lobbyists and wealthy donors, was not a draining of the swamp. It was pythons wrestling with alligators for control of the Everglades.
It’s not as if this failure to follow through on an ethics pledge is unprecedented. Bill Clinton had a similar change of heart at the end of his presidency. But Trump promised to be different — he promised to drain the swamp — and he signed away that promise on his way out of the White House.
Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden has now made his own ethics promises, including a two-year lobbying ban for his appointees. Pledges and executive orders to this effect are fine. But as Trump proved this past week, they can quickly become meaningless. It’s time for some lasting ethics reform in Washington. That means legislation.
It’s one thing for Biden to say that his son Hunter (who has been under federal investigation, reportedly related to his finances and foreign business dealings) and other members of his family “will not be involved in any business, any enterprise that is in conflict with or appears to be in conflict, where there’s appropriate distance from the presidency and government.” It would be a much better thing for that to be enshrined in law, for the family of any president.
There has been a bipartisan appetite for some sort of revolving door ban on Capitol Hill. It’s a rare thing for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ted Cruz to agree on an issue, but this is one of them.
A lobbying ban for former government officials, or at least a lobbying cooling off period, isn’t the only good governance reform the new Congress should make. There’s a good case to be made for tougher restrictions, or even an all-out ban, on individual stock ownership by members of Congress. The past year has proven once again that Republicans and Democrats alike push the existing rules to their limits, and that those restrictions can be difficult to enforce as currently constructed.
The failure to move forward with this type of government reform legislation hasn’t been a failure of ideas. As with Trump walking away from his lobbying executive order, this has been a failure of will. There are plenty of proposals out there — like some of those contained in the massive For the People Act passed in the Democratic-led House last session but disregarded in the then-Republican-led Senate — that deserve debate in both houses of Congress.