Donald Trump’s 2016 slogan was famously “Make America Great Again.” However, arguably even more powerful was “Drain The Swamp,” a chant that was frequently heard at Trump campaign rallies and ended up defining much of his closing message.
While Trump’s 2016 campaign was notable for its barely disguised racism, it’s undeniable that “Drain The Swamp” was an effective attack line for Trump against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. It was a simple slogan that evoked powerful imagery of a corrupt establishment political class apathetic to the needs of regular Americans.
It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which Trump’s electoral success was tied to his promise of cleaning up Washington DC and ending the culture of corruption in the nation’s capital. However, the reality of the Trump Administration has, unsurprisingly, proved much different than the promises of the Trump campaign.
The administration has repeatedly granted waivers allowing former lobbyists to head up agencies created to regulate industries their leaders once represented. Under the Trump Administration, the proper metaphor is not draining the swamp – it’s a fox guarding a hen house.
A Longstanding Washington Tradition
Among political scientists and long-time observers of the political process there is a term called “regulatory capture.” It describes the process by which government agencies which are supposed to regulate specific industries end up “captured” by those same industries – regulators serve the interests of the very companies they are supposed to be overseeing.
Regulatory capture is the rare concept that is accepted among just about every observer of the process, regardless of the observer’s political or ideological affiliation. And it must be acknowledged that this dynamic exists in all presidents’ administrations, including Democratic ones. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, has been problematically close to the aviation industry since its very inception.
However, this doesn’t mean that every administration is identical when it comes to regulation. And The Trump Administration has proven itself uniquely friendly to the very industries it should be regulating.
A Revolving Door
As The Associated Press pointed out in March of 2018 (story linked above), the President had signed an executive order not long after his inauguration that barred “former lobbyists, lawyers and others from participating in any matter they worked on for private clients within two years of going to work for the federal government.”
The administration wasted little time in vitiating that order through the liberal grant of waivers, however.
Some former lobbyists and attorneys have been appointed to the very highest levels of the government. Andrew Wheeler replaced Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency after Pruitt was forced to resign after numerous scandals. Wheeler had previously worked as an energy industry lobbyist.
Meanwhile, at the Department of the Interior, Secretary Ryan Zinke was also plagued by ethics complaints and left the department last December. He was replaced by David Bernhardt, who was officially confirmed by the Senate in April. Bernhardt’s previous job was at the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he represented oil and gas companies and a number of other energy industry entities with business before the Interior Department. In fact, Bernhardt represented those companies in law suits against the department he would go on to head.
But while high-profile jobs like EPA administrator and Secretary of the Interior garner most of the attention, the Trump Administration has been seeding every level of the government with officials who used to represent industries they are now supposed to regulate. According to the AP’s 2018 analysis, more than half of the administration’s EPA appointments had previous industry ties.
To be sure, such ethics waivers are not unique to the Trump Administration. The Obama Administration issued nearly 70 waivers during its eight years, though advocates point out that only five of those went to former lobbyists.
Some compromises are usually necessary when filling the thousands of open positions in the federal government, and finding individuals with enough understanding of complicated public policy issues is difficult. An occasional waiver isn’t out of line. However, the Trump Administration has taken the waiver process to the extreme, and there’s little doubt that the former industry representatives serving in these regulatory agencies are behaving exactly as the quintessential “captured” regulators.
The “swamp” has now become a toxic waste dump – almost literally.