The DC swamp is back — and it’s swampier than ever
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump famously campaigned on “draining the swamp.” As president, he failed — though he may have stirred it up a bit. But with President Biden and Democrats pushing to hand out trillions of taxpayer dollars, pass dozens of new taxes and impose who knows how many new regulations, the swamp is back, baby.
The swamp exposed. Trump wasn’t the first to use the drain-the-swamp mantra. President Reagan invoked it in the 1980s, referring to the need to reduce the size of the government bureaucracy.
While the term’s meaning can shift over time, Trump initially used it to describe his plan to counter the “corruption” practiced by highly-paid lobbyists, entrenched bureaucrats and liberal elites — i.e., powerful, big-money interests who many believe make Washington work for them to the detriment of average Americans. That message resonated with much of the public then — and still does.
But the Democrats’ agenda is making the swamp bigger than ever. As the old saying goes, you have to spend money to make money. Since Democrats want to hand out record amounts of cash, lots of companies and organizations are willing to spend big bucks to snag a slice of that multi-trillion-dollar pie.
According to a recent Washington Post story, a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of lobbying found that nearly 2,000 companies and organizations spent nearly $426 million lobbying Congress and the Biden administration — and that’s just the first half of the year and primarily focused on the infrastructure bill. Even more money is flowing now as Democrats try to decide what to include in their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.
How the swamp works. When Washington wants to ladle out money or impose new taxes or regulations, lots of companies, organizations and individuals rush to lobbyists and their trade associations for help.
The lobbyists may recommend making sizable donations to the relevant politicians. And millions of dollars in unaccountable “dark money” – which Democrats say they hate – will begin to flow throughout the political system.
The lobbyists, organizations and trade associations will try to set up meetings or expensive dinners with elected officials or their staffs, or with people who know them (especially former members of Congress or staff now working for lobbying firms) so the supplicants can plead their case.
The supplicants may or may not come away encouraged. But either way, they will likely conclude they need to keep their messaging, and their money, flowing for a while.
Big stakes mean big bucks. The bigger the stakes, the more time and money interested parties are willing to spend. And the stakes have never been bigger. Yet we have only a vague idea how much money is actually being spent, who is spending it, where it’s going and who it’s helping — or hurting.
Some companies and organizations want to be in on the take, others try to keep from being taken. And some take a third approach: lobbying Congress and bureaucrats to impose more taxes and regulations on their more successful competitors.
We saw this with Trump-imposed tariffs. Thousands of U.S. companies hurt by Trump’s tariffs (which are a tax) lobbied the Commerce Department to end the tariffs or exempt the company. And some companies exempt from the tariffs lobbied the Commerce Department to keep those tariffs on their competitors.
What we’re seeing is the essence of “crony capitalism,” defined as “an economic system in which individuals and businesses with political connections and influence are favored (as through tax breaks, grants and other forms of government assistance) in ways seen as suppressing open competition in a free market.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have practiced crony capitalism at times, even as everyone denounces it. But the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget has raised crony capitalism to a new level.
The hypocrisy is that Democrats regularly decry the negative influence of big money in politics. But it’s their efforts to grow big government that leads to big money being spent.
Lobbying is a constitutional right but is often abused. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying. Citizens of a representative democracy need that ability. And the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
But the term “lobbying,” as well as the practice, has assumed a negative conation because so many have abused it to feather their caps or line their pockets.
In short, companies and organizations are willing to spend millions of dollars on lobbying to ensure they benefit financially from the Democrats’ spending spree — or to ensure that Congress doesn’t tax or regulate them out of business.
The solution to this problem is simple to understand, though difficult to implement: If you want to drain the swamp, first drain big government.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.