WASHINGTON, D.C. - In the final weeks leading up to Election Day, Donald Trump’s campaign unveiled a new slogan at campaign rallies. Along side “build the wall” and “lock her up,” the Republican nominee started promising he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C.
Trump’s new pledge combined a reference to Washington’s low-lying terrain with a suggestion that lobbyists, corporate-interest groups and long-time political insiders are like blood-sucking mosquitos. The nominee provided a detailed plan that included term limits on members of Congress, restrictions on when former officeholders and officials could lobby the federal government and campaign finance reform.
And members of Trump’s team eagerly elaborated on the “swamp” promises.
“The gravy train is about to have its wheels blown off and its engine completely ripped from its bearings because there is just no reason to keep this consultant-lobbyist axis at such a level where people feel like their interests are not being served,” campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in early November.
For many Trump supporters, ”drain the swamp” no doubt signified a promise from an outsider candidate whom they believed would infuse new blood into the federal government.
“I think what most Americans think it means is this: You have this insider club of big corporate insiders and government insiders and they stroke each other and make love to each other and they benefit each other and the average American gets screwed,” said Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and conservative radio host who supported Trump’s campaign.
Now, a little less than a month since Trump won the election, the question is: Do his appointments signal he is serious about dredging and draining Washington?
So far Trump’s cabinet nominations and appointments have included two members of the House, one in office for 11 years, the other for five; a Senator who came to Washington in 1997; a former Labor Secretary who is married to the majority leader of the Senate; and two Goldman Sachs executives.
“I don’t even think he believed in this whole ‘drain the swamp’ mentality. But, yeah, it’s disappointing because this is what we’ve been used to now and what both parties have been doing for years, which is picking Wall Street insiders, big corporate insiders, and I don’t agree with it,” said Walsh, who went on a Twitter tirade Monday after hearing Trump was considering Goldman Sachs’ number two executive, Gary Cohn, for director of the Office of Management and Budget.
“No matter what he thought of [his promise to] ‘drain the swamp,’ millions of voters sent him there to drain the swamp,” Walsh said. “It doesn’t matter who the president is. Goldman Sachs is going to have a revolving door to the White House. They did with Obama, they did with Bill Clinton, they did with George W Bush, and now they will with Trump.”
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow on political reform at New America, a think tank, agreed that so far Trump is not severing Washington from corporate and special interest connections at the cabinet level or other high-level positions in the upcoming administration.
“Ultimately if your concern is that private interests have too much influence in Washington, then you might think about appointing people who did not spend their entire career in the corporate sector. There are people who are career public servants or who have worked in non-profits who might fill some of these roles,” he said. “Instead he’s picked billionaires and people with lots of ties to private special interests to fill his cabinet so that is a worrying sign for those who have picked him to ‘drain the swamp’ of special interests.”
Campaign promises to rid Washington of corporate elites and re-structure lobbying are nothing new, and they have been followed by various tactics.
Former President Jimmy Carter campaigned as an outsider and once in office filled his cabinet with close-knit associates with little experience in the Beltway. President Barack Obama ran on promises to shut Washington’s “revolving door” of lobbyists and government employees. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even used the words “drain the swamp” in 2006 when promising what Democrats would do if they re-took the House.
The reason why politicians never totally follow through on this pledge, or struggle when they try to, is multifaceted, Drutman said.
“They misdiagnose the problem,” he said. “The reason that lobbyists and special interests have had more and more influence is that government, and particularly Congress, has not invested in its own legislative and policy capacity so the only people with any real policy experience in Washington are those paid by private companies to lobby on their behalf.”
Drutman believes that Trump’s definition of “the swamp” is incorrect, in part because he conflates government employees and special interest groups and fails to give credit to the limited number of policy experts working for the government.
“The fantasy view that a lot of people have is that, ‘well what we need is ordinary common sense, and just real people to make decisions.’ And that sounds nice but government employees are real people, too, who have judgment and experience and have spent a lot of time learning about the trade-offs and the policy,” he said.
In fact, Drutman takes issue with the entire “drain the swamp” analogy.
“It’s just a flawed metaphor. Washington is an ecosystem with a lot of people trying to do a lot of different things,” he said. “The problem is that it assumes that you can just remake things anew and that everything is really simple and you can just bring in people who aren’t caught up in it all. That’s like if Trump were to hand over his business to someone who had no experience in real estate, what would he think would happen to his business?”