The Swamp Remains Undrained

Despite campaign promises, reform bills stall, as D.C.’s ecosystem remains marshy as ever.

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2016, file photo, supporters of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hold signs during a campaign rally in Springfield, Ohio. 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.
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, file
Nov. 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

A year ago, Republicans promised to “Drain the Swamp,” riding the slogan all the way to unified control of the government. They talked the talk, and some, such as freshman Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana, even walked the walk, introducing legislation to begin drying out the Capitol’s marshier corners.

Fitzpatrick sponsored a package of bills and resolutions early in the 115th Congress, including provisions that would suspend pay for members if they don’t pass a budget, limit representatives to six terms, and remove members of Congress from the federal retirement systems.

Hollingsworth introduced a bill in late October that would permanently ban former members of Congress from lobbying the body. Former House members are currently subject to a one-year ban, while former senators cannot lobby for two years.

Other measures offered this year would end the death gratuity for the families of members who die in office, nix retirement benefits for members convicted of crimes, and prohibit congressional pay raises if the government runs a deficit.

They’ve all stalled, much like similar proposals in prior Congresses. And it isn’t getting easier, according to former Republican Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee.

Wamp, who served from 1995 to 2011, is now a cochair of the advocacy group Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus. He told National Journal that when he came to Washington as part of the first GOP Congress in 40 years, “the whole reform idea was embraced more universally among Republicans than it is today.” These days, by contrast, “there’s this innate fear that it will get them sideways with the leadership or the [Republican National Committee].”

Aaron Scherb, legislative affairs director for Common Cause, was skeptical that these reform efforts ever stood a chance. “The fact that the House Republicans’ first act was to cut [the Office of Congressional Ethics] was very telling that this wasn’t a Congress that was going to drain the swamp,” he said.

Fitzpatrick, formerly the national supervisor of the FBI’s political-corruption unit, is more optimistic. He told National Journal that government-reform measures are “very nonpartisan. It doesn’t play particularly better with one side or the other. … It’s something that bothers everybody.”

But he’s not satisfied with the progress of reform measures in this Congress. “There’s never enough progress unless you get a floor vote, and I’m waiting for that,” he said.

Some of these reforms, particularly the multiple constitutional amendments proposed to enact term limits, date back to the Newt Gingrich era. But their track record of failure, and absence of vocal White House support, aren’t deterring Fitzpatrick, who says he and a group of freshmen, including Reps. Jodey Arrington of Texas and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, have pushed for a meeting with Trump on term limits.

Hollingsworth’s lobbying ban is perhaps most emblematic of the ardor some members have to clean up the Capitol—and the challenges they face in actually doing so.

Progressives and conservatives alike said the current one- or two-year lobbying ban is difficult to enforce, and that a lifetime ban could perhaps drive more of that activity “underground” in a kind of lobbying black market.

American University political science professor James Thurber points out that former members already circumvent the one- or two-year ban by calling themselves “advisers” or “strategists,” essentially acting as lobbyists without formally registering, and thus skipping the “cooling-off period.” He called this the “Daschle loophole” after former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who did not formally become a lobbyist for 11 years after leaving Congress even while working for lobbying firms during that time.

What reform-minded members have historically been unable to change is the fact that Congress does not like to reduce its own benefits and future earnings, as Wamp noted. Said R Street Institute fellow Casey Burgat, “It’s tough to change careers once you’ve built true issue expertise.”

Efforts to enact term limits encounter the same tendency of members not to hamstring themselves. “As you can imagine, the people that have been here a while sometimes aren’t as receptive to term limits like us new folks are,” Fitzpatrick said. “But that’s what we have to overcome. It’s hard to change the system, but you have to fight hard to do it.”

Will the prevailing “drain the swamp” sentiment help these bills get to Trump’s desk? “Whether there will be movement on the Hill, especially by the majority party, I don’t know,” Thurber said. “It takes a very brave Republican to push it hard,” he added, given the administration’s own ethics difficulties.

Although careful not to blame House Speaker Paul Ryan specifically for the lack of progress, saying he “inherited a system that got excessively partisan,” Wamp is urging Republicans to push forward.

“Whether they have it exactly right or not, I don’t want to throw cold water on what any of them are doing,” he said. “The leadership’s going to throw enough cold water on them.”

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