The swamp wasn't drained — it expanded

The swamp wasn't drained — it expanded
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The best calling card for Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden looks to expand election battleground into Trump country Trump puts Supreme Court fight at center of Ohio rally Special counsel investigating DeVos for potential Hatch Act violation: report MORE and Democrats this fall is health care, a familiar refrain at the virtual Democratic Convention this week. A sleeper issue: cleaning up the Washington swamp — which has gotten deeper and dirtier during the Trump years.

On health care, voters resent President TrumpDonald John TrumpBubba Wallace to be driver of Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin NASCAR team Graham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Southwest Airlines, unions call for six-month extension of government aid MORE's tragic mishandling of the pandemic. Democrats will rail against his oft-stated intent in a second term to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; Oklahoma and Missouri just voted to expand Medicaid.

Trump will deny this, though he has said it publicly. 

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He can't deny that he asked the Supreme Court to throw out the entire Affordable Care Act — more popular than ever with the pandemic — without offering an alternative.

On a different level, the dominance of vested special interests and politically connected lobbyists angers not just the Democratic left, which has been pressuring Biden, but many other voters including Trump supporters.

Biden has vowed he really will drain the swamp; expect to hear a renewed pitch in his acceptance speech. His policy and promises would make a big difference. Yet, as the New York Times recently reported, his campaign is dominated by inside-the-Beltway lobbyists.

Trump's appeal four years ago was fueled by his promise to clean out the Washington swamp of insiders. Instead, no administration — including Richard Nixon’s and Warren Harding’s — ever faced such pervasive ethical and corruption charges

The president's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, his lawyer, Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenA huge deal for campaign disclosure: Trump's tax records for Biden's medical records Our Constitution is under attack by Attorney General William Barr Eric Trump says he will comply with New York AG's subpoena only after Election Day MORE, one time campaign manager, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortOur Constitution is under attack by Attorney General William Barr Bannon trial date set in alleged border wall scam Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention MORE, his longtime political consigliere, Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneOur Constitution is under attack by Attorney General William Barr Justice IG investigating Stone sentencing: report Romney says Trump's protest tweets 'clearly intended to further inflame racial tensions' MORE, all were indicted and convicted or pled guilty. Five cabinet level members were forced to resign because of ethical or legal transgressions.

The current head of the Environmental Protection Agency was a coal lobbyist; the Health and Human Services Secretary was a pharmaceutical lobbyist and executive; the Interior Secretary was an energy lobbyist.

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When the Secretary of State, Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: House Democrats unveil stopgap spending measure to GOP opposition | Bill includes .6B for new subs | Trump issues Iran sanctions after world shrugs at US action at UN Navalny calls on Russia to return clothes he was wearing when he fell ill US issues Iran sanctions to enforce UN action ignored by international community MORE, was under investigation by the State Department's Inspector General for possible professional and personal misdeeds, the Trump administration had an easy answer: They fired the IG.

Foreign states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are among the best customers for the Trump hotels.

It has been New Years' Eve on K Street.

Pro Publica and the Columbia Journalism Review revealed halfway through the Trump administration that it was filled with 281 ex-lobbyists — or four times as many as Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTwitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias Donald Trump delivers promise for less interventions in foreign policy Rush Limbaugh encourages Senate to skip hearings for Trump's SCOTUS nominee MORE enlisted in six years.

Biden is talking the talk on draining the swamp. He has embraced the first House Bill Nancy Pelosi pushed through this Congress: HR 1, which imposes tough new ethics restrictions on members of Congress, the president and the Supreme Court. It also expands voting rights, makes election day a federal holiday, toughens ballot security, forces disclosure of all campaign contributions, ending dark money, and creates a system of partial public financing of federal elections.

It never got a hearing in the Senate.

Biden proposes to build on this and indicated he'd emulate Barack Obama's executive order that basically precludes anyone from top administration jobs who lobbied over the past couple years. Waivers were given.

This will be where the political rubber meets the K Street road. The lobbyists cited in the Times article include several of the candidate's key advisers.

If Biden wins and backtracks on ethics and puts lobbyists in top jobs, the optics will send a message to the cynics: It's business as usual, insiders running Washington for insiders.

On the Cabinet level there might be a little flexibility. For example, Michelle Flournoy, a leading defense expert who'd be a candidate for the top Pentagon post, started a private firm which in recent years did work for pharmaceutical and financial firms. This shouldn't be a disqualifier; if she had done work for defense contractors, it should be.

In that Times article, James Rubin, a former State Department employee and registered lobbyist, complained that banning lobbyists would lose valuable government expertise: "You wouldn't want to fill the government entirely with people who came from ivory tower institutions that are detached from the mechanics of government."

Let's look at the most significant White House aides over the past 40 years. John Podesta was a short term, largely disinterested, lobbyist years before he was Clinton's chief of staff. George W. Bush required Karl RoveKarl Christian RoveSunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Chris Wallace: This isn't the GOP convention, 'it's really the Trump convention' Trump decries Democratic convention as 'gloomiest' in history MORE to sell his consulting/lobbying firm to run his campaign and then serve in the White House.

The others on the all-star team for five Presidents:  

Jim Baker, Dick Darman, Brent Scowcroft, Leon Panetta, Paul Begala, Karen Hughes, Josh Bolten, Rahm Emanuel, David AxelrodDavid AxelrodThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates GOP hunts for leverage in revived COVID-19 talks Pelosi says there shouldn't be any debates between Biden and Trump MORE, Sylvia BurwellSylvia Mary Mathews BurwellBogeymen of the far left deserve a place in any Biden administration The swamp wasn't drained — it expanded Pence, Fauci to brief lawmakers on coronavirus MORE, Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughThe swamp wasn't drained — it expanded Susan Rice calls for Flynn-Kislyak transcripts to be released GOP seeks to go on offense using Flynn against Biden MORE — None came from the world of K Street.

They were pretty good at governance.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct an error: Michelle Flournoy's firm did work for pharmaceutical and financial firms, not lobbying.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.