Time to Drain the Swamp?

Politicians bashing lobbyists is a tired old tactic

Before House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi became speaker in 2007, she spoke of having to “drain the swamp” after more than a decade of Republican control of the chamber. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Before House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi became speaker in 2007, she spoke of having to “drain the swamp” after more than a decade of Republican control of the chamber. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 27, 2016 at 12:10pm

If I were new to the lobbying profession or didn’t suffer through the Jack Abramoff scandal or even listen to the countless candidates over my 20- plus years in this profession tell voters how, once elected, they were going to drain the swamp in Washington, I might actually be offended. When I hear these things, I simply shake my head and ask which candidate is running behind and in desperate need of an issue with which to scare voters.

Donald Trump is just the latest to take this message to the voters. I won’t criticize candidates who actually live their lives and run their campaigns by these beliefs, but the problem is we have yet to find one who meets this standard. Those who have been in this profession know that these are nothing more than political attacks. I do find it quite funny how a candidate talks about draining the swamp and the next hour, a fundraising notice crosses my desk asking me to be an important part of the team by donating generously to his or her campaign. Again, part of the problem voters have today is they don’t trust Washington. This annual ritual of hypocrisy is just what voters have come to hate.

I have a solution for anyone running for office this year or in the future: How about you stop asking lobbyists for money? How about you return any money you’ve received from lobbyists or PACs? How about you simply stop asking lobbyists to raise money for your re-election? Problem solved!

When the Democrats were on the verge of recapturing the House in 2007, we heard Rep. Nancy Pelosi use this exact phrase. (Let’s drain the swamp.) When then-Sen. Barack Obama was running for president, it was the same line of attack. Obama took his dislike for lobbyists further when he issued his executive order banning lobbyists from serving in his administration. The problem with this was he immediately went against his own ban by naming several top-level lobbyists to serve in the White House. I guess they were the “good” lobbyists. Then in 2013, President Obama appointed ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel (who I have great respect for) to serve as secretary of Defense. Chuck Hagel had been a lobbyist. This is not just Democrats being hypocritical, Republicans do it as well.

The closer we get to Election Day, the louder the attacks become. It happens every election cycle like clockwork. These are and will continue to be hollow comments. Yes, it may stir up some people outside of Washington, but I doubt it rises to the level of concern for most voters. If you asked the average voter today whether draining the swamp is more important than jobs, I think the answer is jobs. This won’t stop candidates from throwing us under the bus in order to take the real attention away from their lack of getting things done.

[A History of ’Draining the Swamp′]

We are seeing a real anger directed at Washington and it’s not at lobbyists, but rather at those on both sides of the aisle we elect to govern this country. I’ll admit, we get thrown into this just by the nature of our jobs. If you’re a candidate or a sitting member of Congress, the best way to set yourself apart is by pushing the blame onto those dirty corrupt special interests (or my favorite — The Washington Cartel). It’s great fodder for press releases, campaign literature, fundraising material. The media eats it up,and some voters buy into it but the reality is it’s not an effective campaign strategy. This attack line only gets you so much with voters. Today, voters are angry and want results and it’s not us who they have their eyes set on.

I won’t say Trump’s proposal is awful, but what I will say is that it’s unrealistic in its current form and for me, disingenuous. Trump bragged during the Republican primaries about how he used the system, how he used lobbyists, how he gave millions of dollars to elected officials. Heck, Donald Trump was actually one of us. He has been a registered lobbyist, according to reports. To turn around and use the tone he has just doesn’t ring genuine. A lot of candidates use smoke and mirrors to divert voters from the real issues. Heck, the national media spent all of five minutes talking about these reforms. If these were truly the top issues of the day, we would have seen a week of coverage on them.

I believe we have a profession we all can and should be proud of, and it’s our responsibility to make sure we help close any and all loopholes in the rules. I believe it’s our responsibility to be out front leading on these issues. We are the ones who live and breathe these rules and we are in the best position to create rules and regulations that are fair, balanced and provide the transparency the public says it wants.

[Congress Unlikely to Move on Trump Ethics Plan]

Let’s not be fooled by the drumbeat for reform. These are desperate pleas from some candidates struggling in the polls and unable to connect with voters. This rhetoric does make the case to voters that some lawmakers are simply out of touch with the needs of their constituents. Instead of talking about issues impacting their lives, some candidates are focusing on issues most voters know very little about.

Let’s not talk about draining the swamp, but instead, let’s talk about how we make the legislative process open, available to everyone, and one that works for all, not some. If that’s the dialogue, count me in!

Miller is president of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics.