Trump's lobbying ban was step towards 'draining the swamp'
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President Trump began work on one of his signature campaign promises on Saturday by signing an executive order that banned administration officials from lobbying for five years after they leave office, and prohibits them from lobbying for foreign entities. After months of second-guessing by media outlets and even Trump’s own advisors, it looks like Washington’s influence industry could be in for some real reforms.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If Trump wants to take on Washington lobbyists, he’s going to need more than a simple executive order. If we’ve learned anything from President Obama’s half-hearted attempt to crack down on special interest influence, that should be lesson number one.

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Let’s look back on Obama’s first full day in office in 2009. The freshly-sworn-in president signed executive orders barring officials from his administration from lobbying their former colleagues, a move hailed by ethics-in-government advocates as “particularly far-reaching.”

 

The following year, special interest spending on lobbying hit an all-time high. At the same time, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington plunged, as lobbyists began dodging registration to avoid bans put in place by the incoming administration.

In fact, when Obama was sworn in in 2009, over 14,000 lobbyists had registered their work in the influence industry. By the end of the year, as overall lobbying spending reached historic levels, just over 11,000 lobbyists were on the books, while many others used loopholes to avoid disclosing their work.

Instead of draining the swamp, the lobbying industry during Obama’s presidency just got a little bit murkier.

Voters this election made special interest influence a top campaign issue, and if Trump wants to make good on his lobbying reform campaign promises, he has the solutions and the public support to do so. But it won’t be easy, and it won’t happen in one afternoon.

Real lobbying reform has to start with new legislation that closes lobbying loopholes. Congress and Trump must work together to amend the Lobbying Disclosure Act to ensure that everyone who lobbies and who is paid to lobby must disclose their work to the public.

Today’s lobbying laws are like a sieve, and the problem boils down to a provision limiting disclosure requirements to lobbyists who spend 20 percent or more of their time lobbying for a single client. Everyone else in the lobbying industry is free to influence our lawmakers without reporting their work.

When voters head to the ballot box, they deserve to know what special interests are trying to influence our lawmakers. It’s an essential tool for holding our elected officials accountable.

Closing lobbying loopholes is also critical to the success of any other lobbying reforms Trump would like to sign into law. Why should recent officials from the administration abide by Trump’s five-year cooling off period when they can just as easily dodge lobbyist registration? Why should they work within new foreign lobbying laws when loopholes mean they never have to disclose their work?

On the campaign trail, Trump proposed closing lobbying loopholes as part of his five-point ethics plan for draining the swamp. Also included in the plan – measures banning officials from his administration from lobbying for five years and from lobbying for foreign entities.

Trump crossed the latter two points off his to-do list on Saturday. But let’s not make the same mistake we did in 2009. These reforms are a step forward, but they aren’t “particularly far-reaching.” We can’t expect comprehensive lobbying reform to be signed into law on day one, but we need to set the expectation that our lawmakers take further action to crack down on lobbying over the coming year.

Voters are tired of empty promises on lobbying reform, and they’re ready for our lawmakers to enact real changes that reduce special-interest influence. I attended this year’s inauguration and inauguration protests, and I heard those words from Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters alike. 

If our lawmakers want to make good on their promises to voters this campaign cycle, they must work together to close lobbying loopholes and create a more transparent and accountable government. Anything less is just empty talk.

Chris MacKenzie is campaign director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Democracy for the People campaign.


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