WASHINGTON — Shortly before Election Day last year, Donald Trump rolled out a package of ethics reforms that he promised to implement as president, using for the first time a now-famous phrase: “drain the swamp.”
A year later and nearly nine months into his presidency, Trump has failed to deliver on most of those reforms. Of a five-point list of proposals he unveiled to tighten the rules for Washington lobbying, only one has been fully implemented.
And rather than draining the swamp, many Washington lobbyists say business is better than ever. Spending on lobbying in Washington totaled almost $1.7 billion in the first half of the year, the highest since 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the year since the Green Bay rally, Trump has delivered fully on just one of his five promises.
“I don’t think that anything’s really changed,” said Brian Wild, a longtime Republican lobbyist and a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner. “If anything, the lobbying business is booming right now.”
Draining the swamp is an abstract promise, and Trump has used the phrase to lash out against seemingly every aspect of the Washington establishment, from the press corps to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
But when he first tested it out on Oct. 17, 2016, in Green Bay, Wis., Trump tied “drain the swamp” to a specific set of rules for lobbyists, saying, “I am proposing a package of ethics reforms to make our government honest once again.”
The reforms he outlined included an executive order banning administration officials from lobbying for five years after they leave office, which Trump said he’d also ask Congress to turn into law “so it cannot be lifted by executive order.”
He also pledged to bar officials in his administration from lobbying on behalf of foreign governments for life; to ask Congress to ban former members and their staffs from lobbying for five years; to pass legislation broadening the definition of lobbying “so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use” by calling themselves consultants and advisers; and to ask Congress to ban lobbyists for foreign interests from making campaign contributions.
In the year since the Green Bay rally, Trump has delivered fully on just one of his five promises, signing an executive order a week after taking office that banned executive branch officials from lobbying for foreign governments and overseas political parties after they leave the administration. (How the ban will be enforced is unclear.)
“Drain the swamp” became one of U.S. President Donald Trump’s hallmark phrases after he first used it during a campaign rally on October 17, 2016 in Green Bay Wisconsin | Tasos Katopodis/AFP via Getty Images
Another pledge — to bar former executive branch officials from lobbying for five years — was watered down in his executive order so that it prevents employees only from lobbying the agencies where they work. There’s no indication Trump has pushed Congress to pass the ban into law, the second part of his promise.
The other three reforms — to broaden the definition of lobbying, to ban lobbyists for foreign interests from making campaign contributions and to lengthen the amount of time former lawmakers are banned from lobbying — appear to have gotten little attention from the White House.
More than a dozen Republican and Democratic lawmakers have introduced or co-sponsored bills similar to what Trump proposed, but none have made it out of committee. In his address to Congress in February, when presidents typically lay out their agendas, Trump did not ask lawmakers to pass any lobbying legislation, instead touting the steps he’d already taken “to drain the swamp of government corruption.”
The White House declined to say whether Trump has taken any steps to advance ethics reforms in Congress or whether he planned to do so.
“Following the President’s pledge to ‘drain the swamp,’ the Trump Administration has put in place historically strong lobbying restrictions for current and former Administration staff,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said in a statement.
Some GOP lawmakers say the White House has quietly supported their efforts to turn Trump’s proposals into law, even though Trump has not mentioned them publicly.
“There’s been a general lack of follow-through” on Trump’s campaign promises, said U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio
“They’ve encouraged not only our office but other offices to proceed with ‘drain the swamp’ legislation,” said George Cecala, deputy chief of staff to Representative Bill Posey, a Florida Republican who introduced a bill in July that would ban former members of Congress from lobbying for five years and former congressional staffers for two years. Posey has introduced the same bill several times since 2012.
A spokeswoman for Representative Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who put forward a similar bill in February, said DeSantis was “working alongside the White House” to pass it but didn’t provide further details.
Other lawmakers who have introduced bills that would impose new restrictions on lobbyists said they had heard nothing from the administration.
Representative Dave Trott (R-Mich.) introduced a bill in January that would ban lawmakers for lobbying for five years after leaving office, but an aide said he has not heard from the White House.
Neither, according to a spokesman, has Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who introduced a bill in May with Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) to lengthen the amount of time former congressional staffers are prohibited from lobbying and bar former members of Congress for life, instead of the five-year ban Trump proposed.
Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced a bill that would enshrine into law Trump’s ban on administration officials lobbying for five years after leaving government. DeFazio said he hasn’t heard from the White House either.
U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio is one of dozens of lawmakers who have proposed lobbying restrictions | Alex Wong/Getty Images
“There’s been a general lack of follow-through” on Trump’s campaign promises, DeFazio said in an interview.
Some Trump allies say focusing on the five-point pledge is too narrow. Brad Gerstman, a New York lobbyist who has known Trump for years and opened an office in Washington after he won, said Trump’s voters see “drain the swamp” as a broad promise not to let Washington disrupt his agenda.
“Those are small-ticket items, making these new rules, new regulations,” Gerstman said.
Trump isn’t the first president to denounce the influence of lobbyists on the campaign trail, only to welcome them into his administration. President Barack Obama pledged that the revolving door “will be closed in the Obama White House” during the 2008 campaign but ended up hiring former lobbyists by granting them waivers from his ethics rules.
Trump isn’t even the first to vow to “drain the swamp.”
President Ronald Reagan reminded his Cabinet on the first anniversary of his inauguration that “you’re here to drain the swamp.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appropriated the phrase in 2006 as Democrats were running to regain control of the chamber.
“What’s challenging is even now agencies have a lot fewer political appointees. There’s a lot of empty chairs.” — Democratic lobbyist Elizabeth Gore
Trump has said he was slow to embrace the phrase. “I tell everyone, I hated it,” Trump said at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in December. “Somebody said ‘drain the swamp’ and I said, ‘Oh, that is so hokey. That is so terrible.’”
Lobbyists say Trump has made it harder to influence the administration in some ways — but not in the ways he claims.
“What’s challenging is even now agencies have a lot fewer political appointees,” said Elizabeth Gore, a top Democratic lobbyist, making it harder for lobbyists to secure meetings and get answers to questions. “There’s a lot of empty chairs.”
Lobbyists generally defend their business — but they support some of Trump’s proposals. The National Institute of Lobbying & Ethics, for instance, has pushed to expand the definition of lobbying along the lines Trump proposed. Washington consultants and advisers aren’t required to register under the current rules unless they meet certain thresholds, and many registered lobbyists would like these people to face more oversight.
Those reforms could compel operatives such as Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, to register as lobbyists, which Lewandowski has resisted doing since starting his own firm last year. The changes could also make it more difficult for the heads of trade associations and corporate offices in Washington to avoid registering.
Trump continues to use the phrase, though he has taken one of five steps to fulfill it | Justin Merriman/Getty Images
Some lawmakers still want to move forward on Trump’s lobbying reforms.
DeFazio, the Democrat who introduced a bill that would enshrine in law Trump’s five-year lobbying ban for administration officials, said he planned to send his bill to the White House with the hope that Trump will take it up now that he’s had time to settle into the office.
“Now that you’ve reminded me, we’re going to send it down again and ask if they’ll endorse it,” DeFazio said.