Got your lobbyist pass?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In Defense of the Washington Swamp

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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It's not a great moment for permanent Washington. You know who I mean: the policy analysts, the journalists, the deputy assistant secretaries, the consultants, the legislative directors, the former congressmen, the lobbyists, the think tank executives.   

Americans just elected Donald Trump, who has promised to drain this cozy swamp. And even though Trump did not win the popular vote last Tuesday, many voters on the left and right agree with him on the swamp issue. Remember, Bernie Sanders nearly won the Democratic nomination with the same message.

Speaking as a resident of the swamp, I can tell you this isn't the first time we've seen this. Before Trump, there was Barack Obama. In 2008 he ran on "hope and change." He tried (and quickly failed) to ban lobbyists from his administration. Before Obama, there was George W. Bush. During the New Hampshire primaries, the soon-to-be 43rd president ran an ad that said: "You mark my words: You leave money sitting around the table in Washington -- Washington politicians will spend it."

In 1992, there was Bill Clinton, who stood up for all the Americans who worked hard and played by the rules but were nonetheless at the mercy of the special interests. In 1980, Americans voted for the Ronald Reagan revolution. That election unseated a relatively unknown southern governor, Jimmy Carter, who campaigned in 1976 on bringing honesty back to a capital reeling from the scandal of Watergate. 

There are important differences with Trump. He is the least qualified man to ever win the presidency. He has never held public office, making his career in real-estate and reality television. Trump is also a major political donor. It was part of his initial appeal. He would tell his crowds how he knew first-hand how corrupt politicians are. He used to be one of the guys bribing them.

And yet, despite all of this, Trump is now relying on Washington insiders to clean up the mess they created. His transition team is filled with them, from former House speaker Newt Gingrich to fourth-term senator Jeff Sessions. When asked on "60 Minutes" Sunday why he was employing so many lobbyists on his transition team, Trump said, "that's all there is down there." 

There are a few reasons why presidents before Trump have tried and failed to unseat the governing and political class. To start, modern governing is immensely complicated. There is an old chestnut that says politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This year that's an understatement. Donald Trump campaigned in tweets and he will govern in risk assessments and annotated omnibus appropriations bills.

We remember presidents for their big decisions like the Iraq War or Obamacare. But most of a president's time is taken up with the dreary management of the administrative state. Is there really a Trumpian position on the appropriate limits on arsenic in drinking water, or the adjustable rate for the military's health insurance system?

No politician can be expected to even know how to address most of these matters. The White House and government agencies rely on smart staffers who learn quickly what the debate is and draw up policy options.

Trump and others like him say this process is corrupted. Everyone in the swamp is bought off by special interests. But this is not exactly right. Lobbyists certainly get access to decision-makers because of campaign contributions and personal connections. But their influence most of the time relies on a mastery of policy details, not a simple transaction of pay-for-play. Often it is the lobbyist and not the bureaucrat or staffer who knows the full history of the mundane issues under consideration by a White House. After all, chances are the lobbyist used to be a staffer, bureaucrat or member of Congress. It is this revolving door that has kept the permanent government in business for more than a century.

This is why you see so many alumni of swamp-draining administrations stick around the swamp after their president leaves. They open consultancies and lobbying shops. They join high-profile law firms. They end up engaging in the kind of influence-peddling their bosses once opposed.

Take Gingrich. On Sunday, the former speaker told CBS: "The swamp doesn't want to be drained, and the swamp will just suck you in if you let it." As a former lobbyist for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac, Gingrich knows of what he speaks.

I understand why millions of Americans find all of this so awful. Permanent Washington has done a poor job at addressing the anxieties and pain of many Americans. All the while they have done a very good job of fattening the government they influence.

But before writing off the swamp entirely, it's worth thinking for a minute about the man we just elected president. While many Americans are no doubt elated, Trump campaigned at times like an authoritarian. He threatened his accusers with lawsuits. He banned members of the press from his events. He promised to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He encouraged, at times, his audience to rough up protesters.

It may be that all of this banana republic bravado was for show. But if this is truly who Trump is, the country will need the permanent political and governing class to stop him. The leaks, slow-rolling and backstabbing that in normal times infuriate those who try to reform Washington will be the first line of defense. I sincerely hope it doesn't come to that. But if I'm wrong, you need me in that swamp.       

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net