This SOTU, Trump can move to drain the swamp for good

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Nearly a year has passed since Donald Trump strode into Washington with the confidence of a conqueror and famously declared he would “drain the swamp.” 

The president must now wonder if he’s knee deep in the big muddy. 

His administration is mired in chaos. Key appointments are unfilled. Lawyers and lawsuits are ubiquitous, bleeding presidential prerogative. Unable to consistently lead a Republican Congress, President Trump has succumbed to the baleful precedent of Barack Obama’s second term: governing by executive action. 

Trump devotees and critics routinely overstate his administration’s impact. In fact, any Trump legacy based on unilateral executive action is subject to reversal just as much as Obama’s.

{mosads}Whether or not one supports President Trump, the nation has a stake in his success in transforming the way Washington works. This is an area where there is wide agreement outside of the capital. The demand for reform that sought expression in the improbable campaigns of both Trump and Bernie Sanders remains very real.


It’s still possible for Trump to seize the initiative, but time is short. This year’s State of the Union address  constitutes one of the most significant remaining opportunities for a reset of his administration.

Draining the swamp, or transforming the culture in Washington, means deconstructing the Special Interest State. This is the self-sustaining system of politicians, bureaucrats and their supporting cast of lobbyists, journalists, think tank intellectuals, and lawyers. 

No president can drain the swamp overnight. Nonetheless, Trump can take decisive action to change the weather of Washington politics, by ensuring that public officials live under the same laws as other citizens. Through a mix of statutory, regulatory and voluntary changes, the president can lead Congress to historic reform by:

  • Abolishing the pension for ex-presidents. As a good-faith first step, President Trump should forgo the pension to which he’s now entitled.
  • Abolishing the pension for members of Congress. This would move them into the same retirement systems available to other Americans. Does anyone doubt that this will prompt greater attention to the challenges of retirement savings faced by the rest of us?
  • Demanding that Congress overhaul the legal process for sexual harassment alleged against members. The use of taxpayer money to subsidize secret settlements of actions against our elected officials is indefensible. Transparency is required to bring our representatives into closer alignment with the values and experiences of ordinary citizens.
  • Removing ObamaCare subsidies and special treatment for members of Congress and their staffs. There should be no ambiguity or legerdemain in this, as has occurred in the past. Complete transparency is necessary for accountability. Does anyone doubt that this will foster much more understanding of the challenges faced by ordinary citizens in navigating the chaos of the Affordable Care Act?
  • Removing pension and health subsidies for federal civilian employees. As with Congress and its staff, they should be treated the same as the citizens they’re intended to serve.
  • Banning campaign fundraising while Congress is in session in Washington. This ban should include not only our representatives but also the president. Lawmaking and campaign cash should be disconnected.
  • Closing the 20th century experiment of the “full-time” Congress. There is no better time to return to the constitutional vision of a citizen Congress. In the internet era, there is no need for our legislators to be assembled constantly in Washington rather than serve from their home districts. Congress is in session for an average of two days per week. Much, if not most, of the remainder of their time is dedicated to raising funds for their next campaign.

Having legislators based in their home districts would be a momentous change. It would strip the gears of the special interest machinery in the nation’s capital. There would be less occasion to confuse serving special interests in the capital with serving constituents at home. Most importantly, members of Congress would join the rest of us on the receiving end of the laws they enact. 

None of these actions would require a constitutional amendment. Each would restore neglected constitutional values. They could be started with a series of executive actions and legislative proposals. 


The initial reaction in Washington would likely be negative, perhaps politically explosive. Republicans and Democrats alike would assert that they support major change — but not this far, this fast, this time.

These proposals would require disciplined management and communication by an administration not generally noted for either. There’s every reason to believe that public reaction could be positive, breaking through longstanding political divisions.

Taken together, these actions would begin the process of reorienting our distant federal government toward We the People. The current disorder and dysfunction can be succeeded by long-overdue disruption.

James Strock is CEO of the Serve to Lead Group, based in Scottsdale, Ariz. He served as the first secretary for Environmental Protection for California; assistant administrator for enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; general counsel to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; and special counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. His most recent book is “Disrupt Politics: Reset Washington.” Follow him on Twitter @jamesstrock.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump drain the swamp Look Ahead: SOTU 2018 SOTU State of the Union

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