WASHINGTON - President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington might make it difficult for him to fill all the jobs in his administration.
Trump’s ethics plan would ban all executive-branch officials from lobbying for five years after leaving their government jobs — one of several policies aimed at curbing the influence of lobbyists. His campaign released his plan about three weeks before Election Day, and “drain the swamp” quickly became a favorite rallying cry and social media hashtag.
The ban also applies to the transition team members charged with helping to find, vet and hire for the incoming Republican administration, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said late Wednesday. Additionally, neither the transition advisers nor incoming officials are permitted to be registered federal or state lobbyists, Spicer said. He described the measures as helping to ensure people won’t be able to use government service “to enrich themselves.”
The Trump team did not explain how the ban would be enforced.
Many jobs to fill
While the moves adhere to Trump’s campaign pledge, some argue they are not without risk.
The president-elect is racing to hire about 4,000 executive-branch employees, and his ethics plan could cause some job-seekers to look elsewhere because it limits how they can earn a living after they leave the administration.
“This will have a chilling effect on his hiring, no doubt,” said Paul Miller, who leads the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics. “Most people who agree to government service want to go back into the private sector. We don’t want career politicians, and that’s what he could end up with.”
But to those who have long advocated for breaking the “Potomac fever” that befalls those who come to Washington and never leave, Trump’s ban is worth the risk of losing some potential administration employees.
“Too many people go into government service as a way to punch their ticket and come out and make millions of dollars. That’s both a concern and a reality,” said Meredith McGehee, an executive at the government reform group Issue One.
Congress on its own
Trump’s plan makes other bold assertions, some more doable than others.
He can institute his executive-branch lobbying ban with the stroke of his pen, but measures involving Congress are trickier. Trump says he will ask Congress to institute a five-year lobbying ban for departing members and staff. That would take the approval of legislators who might be squeamish about tamping down their own future employment options.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t directly answer when asked about Trump’s proposed lobbying ban for those leaving the Hill. He said he wants legislators to “address the real concerns of the American people” rather than fixate on every utterance during the presidential contest.
What is a lobbyist?
Trump also wants to “expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisers when we all know they are lobbyists.
That’s reasonable, McGehee said, but difficult. Increasingly, those employed by the influence industry call themselves “consultants” or “strategists.” In fact, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has dropped to fewer than 10,000 from 15,000 a decade ago, likely the result of this rebranding.
Miller and other lobbying advocates also agree registration should be more expansive.
Yet 2011 legislation to do just that hasn’t moved forward. That could be a heavy lift for Trump. If it’s too onerous, he could pare back his goals and include a more expansive lobbying definition that would only apply to the administration.
It’s also unclear how many of the thousands of people Trump is about to hire would be subject to his ban. His proposal says “all executive-branch officials,” but in practice he may be referring only to Cabinet members and high-level White House officials.
Washington insiders are getting mixed signals from Trump.
His original transition team, assembled under New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was packed with lobbyists and interest advocates. In recent days, Trump put Vice President-elect Mike Pence in charge of transition, and he is changing some of the people who are involved.
Pence is “making good on President-elect Trump’s promise that we’re not going to have any lobbyists involved with the transition efforts,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Wednesday. “And this is, when we talk about draining the swamp, this is one of the first steps. And so, the bottom line is, we’re going to get the transition team where we need it to be.”
In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday, Trump said he’d had no choice but to initially rely on lobbyists in Washington because “the whole place is one big lobbyist.” He vowed to “phase that out.”
His White House predecessors have made similar promises.
On the campaign trail in 2007, Barack Obama frequently condemned the revolving door of Washington in terms strikingly similar to Trump.
Obama made bold promises before his first election, yet government influencers remained entrenched. Still, he won re-election after a second campaign that included almost no talk about the revolving door.
“Drain the swamp. Stop the revolving door. These are great things to say to get elected,” said Howard Marlowe, president of Warwick Group Consultants, and a longtime advocate for fellow lobbyists. “After you get elected, you find a way to quietly push it aside.”