At least in theory, some of Donald Trump’s proposals for anti-corruption and lobbying reform point to some things that really would be worthwhile accomplishments.
“Generally, there are some good things in here,” says Lisa Gilbert, of the government watchdog group Public Citizen. “They’re mostly a step in the right direction and things we’d agree with and want to see enacted.”
But when you open the hood and really look at the plans, three big problems emerge in Trump’s proposals to “drain the swamp” of Washington. One is that some of his “plans” are so short and incomplete that nobody has any idea what the hell they mean. Others appear designed to fix flaws in the campaign finance system that simply don’t exist.
The second big problem is that Trump looks poised to staff his White House with the very kind of people campaign finance and anti-lobbying reforms are designed to keep out of the machinery of government. Trump has tapped lobbyists like Trent Lott and corruption-plagued politicians like Chris Christie to lead his transition team — and may staff his administration with Wall Street bankers. So much, in other words, for reducing the influence of corporate interests.
The third big problem is that Trump has said nothing whatsoever about tackling the real reason financial elites are seen as rigging the political system — reforming the broken system of campaign contributions. Democrats talked at length of repealing the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that legalized an unprecedented flood of dark money into political campaigns. Trump talked about this a little bit during the Republican primary, but has since stopped doing so and even hired the lawyer most responsible for the Citizens United decision.
“The missing elephant is anything in his proposals that deals with the crisis of money in politics,” Gilbert says. “If you think about draining the swamp — the rigging of the system by Wall Street and corporate money — there’s nothing that gets at that.”
What Trump gets right in his anti-lobbying proposals
Before we get to the flaws in Trump’s anti-corruption proposals, we should note that there are two ideas in particular that lobbying reform experts really do like:
- Trump says he wants to force former White House and congressional staff to wait at least five years to go into lobbying. Right now, the wait period is two years.
- Trump also says he wants to “expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisors when we all know they are lobbyists,” according to his website.
These are both ideas that good government advocates have long thought would help reduce the influence of lobbyists in American politics. The first is simple: It would merely increase the separation between leaving government and going into private lobbying.
“There really should be a longer cooling-off periods to prevent people in government from going back to lobbying the organization they worked for,” Gilbert says.
The second proposal emerges from a major loophole in the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which was updated by Congress in 2007. That law sets a pretty arbitrary definition of a lobbyist as anyone who spends more than 20 percent of his or her time engaged in “lobbying activities.” This allows many people doing what you would traditionally think of as lobbying — seeking to influence legislation, getting paid to pressure lawmakers — to avoid formally registering as lobbyists, and thus circumvent the laws applying only to “registered lobbyists.” Expanding the legal definition of a lobbyist, if Trump can somehow pass it through Congress, would be a good way of addressing this loophole, according to Gilbert.
“This is a good step — it’s a pretty huge problem how people define themselves as lobbyists or not,” she says. “This is an interesting part of the issue, and it looks like Trump may actually be committed to rooting it out.”
Nobody knows what the hell many of Trump’s plans are about
But the rest of Trump’s proposals just don’t really make a lot of sense. It’s not so much that they’re bad — it’s just that the wording is just too imprecise and unclear to really evaluate what he has put forward, either critically or with praise.
“A lot of these are vague enough that we don’t have enough to know what to say,” Gilbert says.
Adds Carrie Levine, of the Center for Public Integrity: “I think you can’t divorce the proposal from its details, and a lot of the details are missing right now.”
Take proposal No. 6 in his 100 days plan — or, as the document reads: “SIXTH: a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.”
When we talk over the phone, Brooklyn Law School president Nick Allard laughs as he tries to slowly parse the idea’s meaning. He rereads the sentence aloud twice, then three times.
“Does ‘foreign lobbyists’ mean ‘foreign nationals’ who are lobbyists? That’s already prohibited. Does he mean ‘foreign money?’ That’s also already prohibited,” he says.
Maybe Trump wants to prevent American lobbyists from taking foreign money. But what counts as foreign money? If he’s talking about foreign governments, then that’s already illegal. If he’s talking about multinational corporations, then Trump is talking about a genuinely massive new restriction — banning hundreds if not thousands of firms like Coca-Cola and Pfizer from lobbying on Capitol Hill — that would require hugely changing the Washington landscape (and would never make it through a Republican-controlled Congress).
“I just have no idea what that sentence means. And Trump hasn’t exactly been eager to clarify,” Allard says.
Similar uncertainty marks most of the other Trump proposals that have a veneer of “good government” intent.
Trump’s fourth priority for his first 100 days, for instance, calls on a “lifetime ban against senior executive branch officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.”
But the experts I interviewed say this isn’t a problem anyone was really aware of.
“I have no idea what or who he is talking about there, and I have no examples of this being a problem. I guess it would prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming a lobbyist for the UK after leaving the State Department?” Gilbert says. “I don’t know of anyone who has done this.”
Trump is surrounding himself with the very people anti-corruption reform is intended to go after
Since Trump’s victory, he has rushed to Washington to figure out how to fill the ranks of the vast federal apparatus he will soon command.
And, to do so, he’s appointed a transition team that will help oversee the effort. But as the New York Times reported on Friday, so far he’s doing so by turning to the very peddlers of corporate influence his campaign focused on deriding.
Some of the people at the helm of Team Trump’s transition, per the Times:
Jeffrey Eisenach, a consultant who has worked for years on behalf of Verizon and other telecommunications clients, is the head of the team that is helping to pick staff members at the Federal Communications Commission.
Michael Catanzaro, a lobbyist whose clients include Devon Energy and Encana Oil and Gas, holds the “energy independence” portfolio.
Michael Torrey, a lobbyist who runs a firm that has earned millions of dollars helping food industry players such as the American Beverage Association and the dairy giant Dean Foods, is helping set up the new team at the Department of Agriculture.
To many Trump critics, this smacks of outright hypocrisy. Trump campaigned on ridding the government of corporate influence peddlers — and now he’s turning to lobbyists to lead his team?
“There is a huge disconnect between the campaign rhetoric he has used to great effect around draining the swamp and Wall Street money being corrupting, and putting lobbyists and industry front and center in his transition team,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert does note that there may be an internal logic to Trump’s thinking that could justify this decision. After all, even if Trump is using lobbyists right now, perhaps he’s just using them to find people outside of the system for his administration?
“Just because he’s letting lobbyists into the transition doesn’t mean he’ll let them into the administration,” Gilbert says. “So we’ll have to wait and see what he does.”
Trump has nothing to say about the true source of corruption in American government
But even there, the signs are not promising. News reports have surfaced that Trump is considering JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, who will certainly be favorable to Wall Street, for Treasury secretary.
This hints at the real reason good government experts are terrified by what Trump’s administration might represent. The big flaw in our lobbying and campaign finance system is not that politicians knowingly trade quid pro quo government favors for donations — as Trump alleged against Clinton — but that in having to raise huge sums of money, politicians end up spending far more time with the superrich than they do with the poor and middle class.
This leaves them much more attuned to the priorities of elites, amounting to a perversion of democracy that elevates the desires of the superwealthy above those who can’t afford to buy access to and meetings with lawmakers.
"Most people concerned about campaign finance are concerned that there's plenty of evidence that the views of very wealthy people are reflected in the views of public policy," says Richard Skinner, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics. "The fact that you have people spending so much of their time with very wealthy people affects not only the policies they adopt but also their worldview."
But we don’t need to approach the technical details of Trump’s campaign finance and lobbying proposals to know that both he and his administration will be inordinately shaped by the desires of the rich and powerful. This is what makes Trump's lobbying push almost irrelevant to scrutinize. Trump is a self-proclaimed billionaire. Most of his cronies and advisers are billionaire moguls. We don’t need to consider a proposal to patch up loopholes in the Lobbying Disclosure Act to know that Trump will be keenly attuned to the superwealthy’s pet issues. (Look at how his tax plan is absurdly favorable to the top 1 percent of Americans, for instance.)
"You can say that if you're spending your own money, you're free to do what you think and not be obligated to donors," Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit that focuses on government transparency and campaign finance, told me during the Republican primary. "But the other side of that coin is to say, 'We don't want really wealthy people to buy elections and have a system only run by the superrich.' And Trump doesn't say that."