“Drain the swamp” was one of the Trump campaign's rallying cries. A Washington outsider, Trump promised to clean up corruption and the influence of special interests because he was not beholden to lobbyists as he claimed his opponents were. It is unsurprising, then, that in his Contract with the American Voter, Trump promised to drain the swamp in his first 100 days and pass the Clean Up Corruption in Washington Act, which promotes a new code of congressional ethics. Yet as Trump nears his 100th day, the swamp appears to still have water in it.
The contract has six measures to end corruption, and Trump has used executive orders to implement most of these measures. One of the measures promised to eliminate two regulations for every one that is created. The administration argued that these regulations hurt small businesses, but critics worry that slashing these regulations could hurt the environment. The executive order excluded independent agencies. Other measures that Trump enacted through executive orders include a hiring freeze on all federal employees, a five-year ban on executive-branch officials from becoming lobbyists after they leave their government job and a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying for a foreign government. The lifetime ban in particular runs counter to Trump’s interactions with lobbyists.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn works as a lobbyist for a firm that represents Turkey, and has caused several bad news days for the Trump administration. But less high profile contradictions exist as well. Jeffrey Winters, a professor of political science at Northwestern, noted that former senator Bob Dole, who is a lobbyist for the Taiwanese government, played a key role in getting Trump to make an unprecedented call to the Taiwanese government. The measure in the contract promised to extend the five-year ban to Congressional officials, but has not been implemented.
Some observers do not believe these measures will actually do much to hurt lobbyists. Winters has studied oligarchy and considers these measures to be lip service.
“If you are going to police that, you really need quite an extensive apparatus to follow after everyone and know where they go,” Winters said. “We haven’t heard of any upgrading of an apparatus of surveillance of this or implementation of this.”
Some have argued that these bans would make it hard for Trump to fill the thousands of jobs in his administration and that officials could find ways around the order. While the administration does have a comparably large number of staff vacancies, Winters said he believes that Trump’s lack of an apparatus in D.C. could play a part in these vacancies.
“The Republican establishment didn’t want Trump, and they didn’t expect him to win,” he said. “So, by the time he’s arriving in Washington, they don’t really have a fully functioning apparatus to be able to quickly fill thousands and thousands of positions.”
Winters also explained that this slowness could be an intentional attempt to make regulatory committees ineffective. “A lot of the people around Trump view these executive bodies as being regulatories in the way and they would like to dismantle as many as possible,” he said.
On a larger scale, Trump proposed a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress and a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money in U.S. elections. Implementing a constitutional amendment is a hard process, especially when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the amendment. If Trump were to somehow muster the political influence necessary to pass the amendment, it may not be a net positive. Winters explained that term limits would empower staffers who have devoted their lives to Washington and possess the knowledge to implement policies that a government filled with inexperienced politicians would lack. This shift would make the government more beholden to unelected officials.
While Trump’s executive orders can be revoked if the next president does not agree with them, Winters believes his order could stay on the record as long as they do not do any real damage to lobbying and special interests.
“Those kind of things will last long on the books as long as they can be circumvented effectively,” Winters said. “If they really have teeth and really do mess up the revolving door game then I think its longevity will get challenged.”
The chances of Trump creating threatening policies seem less likely in the first 100 days since the White House has yet to propose the Clean Up Corruption in Washington Act to Congress. There is no indication that it will be introduced soon and special interest groups do not seem worried that anti-swamp legislation will be introduced.
In fact, special interests do not seem worried about Trump in general. Some lobbyists believe they will actually see a surge in lobbying, which had been in decline because partisan gridlock slowed down the creation of legislation that lobbyists could advocate for. Lobbyists expect the legislative process to speed up because Congress and the executive branch are dominated by the same party.
Furthermore, Winters said he believes that Trump’s personal animosity toward the Manhattan elite that rejected him abated when they started treating him better during his run for presidency. Winters said he considers the surge in the Dow Jones a sign that Wall Street did not take Trump seriously.
Such a reversal has historical precedence. Most presidential candidates promise to fight special interests in order to appeal to voters, but Winters noted that they usually assure Wall Street that the system will remain. Winters used Bernie Sanders as an example of a candidate that actually wanted to fight special interests, and lost.
Trump has also hired former lobbyists to staff his administration and has tapped former members of Goldman Sachs to join his team, which Winters pointed out sends employees to the government that the company has a preset formula to give to employees who work in a presidential administration.
Overall, changing the culture of Washington may be a bigger challenge than Trump thought it would be. Currently, Trump has used executive orders to fight special interests but they have yet to be thwarted, and curbing their influence will be a challenge in the future for the Trump administration.