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Trump's battalion of lobbyists keeps the swamp undrained

031018 Editorial Saturday Lobbyists pic
President Trump promised on the campaign trail to "drain the swamp." Trump has appointed approximately 184 former lobbyists to senior posts, an investigation by ProPublica has found. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Who knew draining the swamp could be so complicated?

President Trump called his campaign the beginning of “a movement about taking our government back from the donors, the lobbyists, and the special interests and giving that power back to the people.”

“We're going to take on the special interests,” candidate Trump said, “the lobbyists, and the powerful politicians that have stolen your jobs through theft and incompetence.”

That has proven easier to promise than to execute. Trump has appointed approximately 184 former lobbyists to senior posts, an investigation by ProPublica has found. Many of these lobbyists are working on issues that directly affect their former employers, and on which their former employers (and colleagues) are still lobbying.

While the relish with which the media have reported this ProPublica study reflects an antagonism towards Trump and towards industry (a relish absent during the years in which former President Barack Obama broke his own promises about hiring lobbyists), conservatives should be worried about the small battalion of lobbyists now occupying the Trump administration.

First are the simple concerns about good government. Revolving-door lobbyists tend to revolve. An administration run by public servants eyeing their lucrative cashout will not be an administration run consistently in the public interest. Maybe an appointee will play ball with a potential future hire? Maybe she’ll arrange things so as to make herself more valuable. Either of these considerations can draw a policymaker away from good policy.

We saw plenty of evidence of that in the Obama administration: A top lawyer at the Department of Health and Human Services helped implement the contraceptive mandate before returning to his old law firm, where he had been a lobbyist for a drugmaker that makes “morning-after” contraception. The bureaucrats who drafted the regulations implementing the Dodd-Frank financial services law left in droves to work as consultants and lobbyists who would help financial firms navigate those same regulations.

And these examples bring us to the reason conservatives, specifically, should be wary of revolving-door lobbyists in policymaking jobs.

Washington lobbyists are not friends of free enterprise.

We’ve seen this drama play out time after time under Trump. Recall when efforts to help Puerto Rico recover brought attention to the corrupt Jones Act, which forbids the use of foreign ships to transport goods between U.S. ports. This, of course, makes shipping very expensive and everything very expensive for Americans who live on islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Trump was asked: Should we suspend or repeal the Jones Act? “We're thinking about that," Trump answered, "but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people ... who work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted.”

Trump has made a few costly, big-government moves that please corporations whose CEOs and lobbyists have his ear. He is punishing U.S. air carriers in order to protect Boeing from competition. He is punishing U.S. consumers and manufacturers in order to please steel and aluminum makers.

If Trump is serious about taking power away from the lobbyists and the special interests, he’s very confused about how to do it. Too often, he turns to industry voices and places faith in what they say as they plead for special protection from market forces.

Perhaps Trump’s campaign-season rhetoric about banishing all lobbyists was too simplistic, reflecting Trump's naivete about how to fight the problem. But he was right that Washington is a swamp that sucks all wealth toward itself. He needs to stop listening so much to the swamp creatures.