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Trump's "Drain the Swamp" plan is Fake Reform

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Donald Trump has announced that registered lobbyists will not serve in his transition team, and that there will be a five-year lobbying ban for anyone who works in his administration.

This makes today a very good time distinguish between "fake reform" and "real reform." It's a distinction we're going to need.

Fake reform is typically a meaningless and minor policy change that sounds far grander than it is. Fake reform is carefully designed to send a message that makes it seem like government officials are tackling a problem, without actually doing anything to tackle that problem. Fake reform is also intended to distract the public from an even bigger problem that government officials have no interest in resolving. In short, fake reform is meaningless at best and subterfuge at worst. It is pure symbolic politics.

By contrast, real reform actually addresses the underlying problem that the public is worried about. But because few problems have simple direct answers, real reform often lacks the whiz-bang messaging resonance of fake reform. Real reform is often dull and technocratic. It recognizes and wrestles with trade-offs. Its solutions are not always easily explainable or popular.

Donald Trump's lobbying ban should be treated as a textbook example of fake reform.

Fake reform is a meaningless and minor policy change that sounds far grander than it is

Trump says no registered lobbyist will serve in his administration. No problem. All a registered lobbyist has to do is file some paper and deregister, and presto, change-o, that person is no longer a lobbyist and therefore welcome in the Trump administration. Presumably, this is something almost every lobbyist would do anyway upon taking a government job.

Trump also says there will be a five-year lobbying ban for anybody serving his administration. He certainly has the power to prevent any lobbyist who has served in his administration from officially lobbying his administration for five years after leaving. But "lobbying" has a very specific legal definition based on how an individual allocates his or her time on behalf of clients. And many would-be lobbyists shirk these rules quite easily. Given the value that Trump and his inner circle place on loyalty, do we really expect that someone who served in his administration would not have privileged access to his administration, regardless of whether this person's activities constitute the legal definition of "lobbying"?

Additionally, unless Congress passes separate revolving-door rules for who can lobby the House and Senate (very unlikely), anyone who serves in his administration will be free to lobby Congress.

Finally, there is the question of enforcement. Already, Trump's transition team appears to be violating its own internal lobbying ethics rules. Given the fast-and-loose chaos the administration has already demonstrated, who thinks anybody on the Trump team is going to bother with making sure people in his administration follow these rules?

Fake reform distracts from an even bigger problem

The big worry about a Trump administration is not that a handful of lobbyists are going to run his transition team or serve as his advisers. Anyone who thinks this is the big fight is not only fooling himself but is falling for Trump's gambit. Far more important is whom Trump appoints to key Cabinet positions, and what his actual policies are. The more we get hung up on whether or not key people were lobbyists, the more we miss the bigger picture. Which is precisely what Trump would like.

The real worry about corruption in a Trump administration is that we've never elected a president with so many potential conflicts of interest and so much disregard for the basic norms of appropriateness. Rather than selling off his businesses or putting them in a blind trust, he now has his children running them. The real worry about a Trump administration is that it turns out to be a tremendous kleptocracy. Whether or not he has a few lobbyists on his team is like worrying about whether the milk served on the Titanic is being properly refrigerated.

Fake reform doesn't address the underlying problem

If a Trump administration were serious about reducing the influence of special interests in Washington, there's a simple fix that actually would be "real reform": Build up government capacity.

There's a reason special interests and lobbyists have become so powerful in Washington, and that's because the federal government, and especially the legislative branch, has cut its own capacity. Congress now has about the staff capacity, and much less on key committees, than it had 35 years ago. With each passing year, this makes Congress more and more dependent on primarily corporate lobbyists (since most lobbyists are corporate lobbyists) to provide information and expertise, and increasingly to just write the bills for them and build the coalitions to get the bills passed.

Yet instead of strengthening government capacity, Trump wants to reduce it. He's proposed a hiring freeze on all federal employees ("to clean up the corruption," of course). But the inevitable result will be that even more short-staffed agencies will have to rely more on industry lobbyists for basic policy expertise, which will shape how federal rules are written and enforced. Rather than draining the swamp, this would simply free up more space for lobbyists.

Term limits are fake reform too

Trump's other big piece of fake reform is term limits for Congress. I've written previously why term limits are a bad idea. The simple reason is that they take away expertise from the legislative branch and empower the executive branch and private lobbyists, who gain a comparative expertise advantage.

If voters are truly concerned about career politicians in Washington, they might start voting for challengers. Yet in 2016, 97 percent of incumbents who ran were reelected. True, this is because few races are competitive anymore. But rather than try to pass term limits (fake reform), those concerned about incumbent politicians cruising to victory might direct their attention to electoral reforms to make elections more competitive.

Now more than ever, we need to distinguish fake reform from real reform

All politicians are guilty of promoting fake reform over real reform. The Obama lobbying ban was also fake reform, because it didn't address the real issues of government capacity I addressed. I'd also classify the Democrats' 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act as mostly fake reform, for similar reasons.

But the stakes are far higher now. We've never seen anything close to the conflicts of interest that a Trump administration poses. Now more than ever, we must understand the difference between fake reform and real reform. We need to treat Trump's so-called "lobbying ban" as what it is: meaningless substance, intended as subterfuge and distraction. Fake reform.

Instead of falling for it, let's keep our eyes on the bigger issues, like government capacity, Trump's conflicts of interest, Cabinet picks, and, most of all, the policies. Every additional minute we spend debating the merits of the "lobbyist ban" is a minute we've wasted.

If these were normal times, the influence of lobbyists in the next administration might be a normal thing to worry about. But these are not normal times. There are much bigger things to worry about.