WASHINGTON, May 25, 2017 – One of the reasons many people voted for Donald Trump in 2016 was his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. In particular, he promised to limit the role of lobbyists in government.
A promise also made by President Obama.
Now in office, Mr. Trump has filled his new administration with former lobbyists. Beyond this, he seeks to keep this secret and has moved to block an effort by the government’s top ethics watchdog to disclose the names of former lobbyists who have been granted waivers to work in the White House or federal agencies.
The NY Times reports:
“President Trump signed an executive order in late January — echoing language first endorsed by Mr. Obama — that prohibited lobbyists and lawyers hired as political appointees from working for two years on “particular” government matters that involved their former clients. In the case of former lobbyists, they could not work on the same regulatory issues they had been involved in.
Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama reserved the right to issue waivers to this ban. Mr. Obama, unlike Mr. Trump, automatically made any such waivers public, offering detailed explanations. The exceptions were typically granted for people with special skills, or when the overlap between the new federal work and a prior job was minor.”
Late in May, in a highly unusual move, the White House sent a letter to Walter M. Shaub, Jr., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, asking him to withdraw a request he had sent to every federal agency for copies of the waivers.
In the letter, the administration challenged his legal authority to demand the information.
Mr. Shaub responded with a 10-page response. He declared:
“O.G.E. Declines your request to suspend its ethics inquiry and reiterates its expectation that agencies will fully comply with its directive.”
This letter went to the ethics officer of every federal agency, six members of Congress who oversee government operations and to the inspector generals from agencies throughout the government.
“Public confidence in the integrity of government decisions demands no less,” he wrote.
The fact is that dozens of former lobbyists and industry lawyers are now working in the Trump administration, which has hired them at a much higher rate than the previous administration. Keeping the waivers secret would make it impossible to know whether any of these officials are violating federal ethics rules or have been given a pass to ignore them.
Marilyn L. Glenn, who served as general counsel and acting director of the Office of Government Ethics under the George W. Bush administration, called the move by the Trump White House “unprecedented and extremely troubling.” She declared:
“It challenges the very authority of the director of the agency and his ability to carry out the function of his office.”
In January, President Trump signed an executive order which echoed language previously endorsed by Barack Obama, that prohibited lobbyists and lawyers hired as political appointees from working for two years on “particular” government matters that involved their former clients.
In the case of former lobbyists, they could not work on the same regulatory issues they had been involved in. Both Trump and Obama reserved the right to issue waivers to this ban. Under Obama, these waivers were automatically made public and offered detailed explanations.
Ms. Glynn, who worked in the Office of Government Ethics for nearly two decades, said she had never heard of a move by any previous White House to block a request like Mr. Shaub’s. Ethics watchdogs have expressed concern about the numbers of former lobbyists taking high-ranking political jobs in the Trump administration.
In many cases, they appear to be working on the exact topics they had previously handled on behalf of private-sector clients, including drug companies, oil and gas interests, and Wall Street banks.
Federal law gives the Office of Government Ethics, which was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandals, clear legal authority to issue such a “data request” to the ethics officers of federal agencies. This is the main power the office has to oversee compliance with federal ethics standards.
No White House has ever challenged the ethics office in this way before.
The fact is that Washington is just as dysfunctional as candidate Donald Trump said it was. The role of lobbyists, in particular, has grown dramatically in recent years. In 1974, only 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Today, that number is 42 percent for members of the House and 50 percent for Senators.
In 2010, Sen Evan Bayh (D-IN), after writing in The New York Times about “the corrosive system of campaign financing,” joined with Andrew Card, the former chief of staff to President George W. Bush, in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby against corporate regulatory reform. After BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it hired a bipartisan group of lobbyists that included both a former top spokesman for Dick Cheney and the Democratic fund-raiser Tony Podesta.
Two of the top three political action committee donors to former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell are the same: Comcast and AT&T. The former Republican Senate leader Trent Lott and former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt are united in lobbying for GE.
Increasingly typical is the bipartisan lobbying firm of Quinn, Gillespie and Associates. Jack Quinn, who was Bill Clinton’s White House counsel, joined with Ed Gillepsie, a principal drafter of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, and a former aid to Dick Armey, the House majority leader who received $8 million in severance from the tea-party group, FreedomWorks, went on to work together to advance a variety of special interests.
In his book “This Town,” New York Times correspondent Mark Leibovich describes a Washington inhabited by “a permanent feudal class”, a phrase he attributed to former Sen Tom Coburn (R-OK), “It’s not Democrats. It’s not Republicans. It’s just a class.”
He describes it this way:
“Journalists are part of it. Lobbyists are part of it. Hangers-on and wannabes are part of it. This class, like every other ruling class, has one primary aim toward which all efforts strive: staying in power by any means necessary.”
Consider the case of former Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, originally elected as a Democrat but later switching to the Republican Party. He left his post as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce committee, to become a lobbyist for the drug industry. In 2009, shortly after leaving Congress, he reportedly earned $4.48 million as the head of the PHRMA drug industry lobby, a huge increase from his congressional salary.
Tauzin took a leading role in pushing for and shaping President Obama’s health plan. PHRMA spent more than any other single-industry lobby in 2009, winning subsidies, protection, and mandates.
In his campaign, Donald Trump seemed to be pointing a finger at Washington’s permanent political class and, in promising to “drain the swamp,” pointed a finger particularly at lobbyists and their role in government’s revolving door. Now, the Trump administration seems not only to have embraced this permanent class but is going one step further, trying to keep its relationship with lobbyists secret.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Political partisans, both Democrats, and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, paint a false picture the problems we face. The enemy of good, honest and representative government is not the “other” party, but our evolving system of political privilege and largesse in which both parties are co-conspirators.
Sadly, with a Republican in the White House, most Republicans have abandoned the skepticism of government power they so loudly proclaim when the other party occupies the White House. They would do well to read Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Edward Carrington, in which he observed that:
“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground…One of the most profound preferences in human nature is for satisfying one’s needs and desires with the least possible exertion; for appropriating wealth produced by the labor of others, rather than producing it by one’s own labor. In other words, the stronger the government, the weaker the producer, the less consideration need be given him and the more might be taken away from him. A deep instinct of human nature being for these reasons in favor of strong government, nothing could be a more natural progress of things than for Liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
Americans who voted for Donald Trump to “drain the swamp” of Washington may not yet understand that hiring large numbers of lobbyists to run government agencies they used to lobby in behalf of special interests, and probably will again in the future, and to try to keep it secret from the public, is the opposite of what he promised.
Eventually, they will come to this realization and see that, in reality, the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.