The swamp wasn’t drained — it expanded

Getty Images

The best calling card for Joe Biden 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 Trump’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. 

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 Cohen, one time campaign manager, Paul Manafort, his longtime political consigliere, Roger Stone, 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.

When the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, 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 Obama 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 Rove 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 Axelrod, Sylvia Burwell, Denis McDonough — 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.

Tags 2020 Democratic convention Barack Obama conflicts of interest Corruption David Axelrod Denis McDonough Donald Trump drain the swamp influence Joe Biden Joe Biden campaign Karl Rove Lobbying in the United States Michael Cohen Mike Pompeo Nancy Pelosi Paul Manafort Presidency of Donald Trump Roger Stone Sylvia Burwell

More Campaign News

See All

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video