On Donald Trump, the “reformer”
I can’t count the number of people who have emailed/tweeted/fb’d me to ask whether “we shouldn’t try to work with Trump to bring about reform.”
I get the silver-linings urge. I’ve yielded to it myself. (See the end of this.)
But there is no silver-lining here—at least, so far. Nothing Trump has promised would do anything real to end the corrupt economy of influence in Washington. And his “evolution” on the issue should indicate just now (un)serious he really is about DC “corruption.”
Start with the evolution: At the beginning of the GOP primary, Trump had genuinely interesting things to say about the corrupt “dependence” (as he described it) of politicians on their funders. In the first debate, he called out everyone else on stage for being “dependent” on big funders — in a way that he obviously was not (at least then). The obvious target was Jeb Bush: Bush, Trump argued, could not be trusted to put the public interest first while his SuperPAC was taking “million dollar” contributions from special interests. Indeed, that’s why Trump became such a vigorous SuperPAC critic. E.g.,
But as it turns out, all that reform-talk was worth about as much as a degree from Trump University (though it certainly will cost the nation much more). Trump’s campaign quickly became dependent on SuperPACs. And that dependence has now erased the focus on funders as the source of DC corruption.
Look at the comparison between the problem as Trump saw it in 2015 — tied to the corrupt influence of funders—and the problem as he tries to solve it in 2016—unrelated to the corrupt influence of funders. (Time published a really nice summary, compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, of his “evolution” on this issue last June.)
As Trump’s campaign announced in a press release describing Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter” (Gingrich/Luntz, you in there?): In the first 100 days, Trump is going to adopt “six measures to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, DC.”
The six, with commentary, are as follows:
★ FIRST, propose a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress.
Putting aside the obvious non-starter of an amendment that would require 2/3ds of Congress, and then 3/4ths of the states to be ratified, term-limits won’t solve the problem. Indeed, it may well be that the effectively-voluntary term limits of the current system are creating a big part of the problem, as members frantically seek the perfect moment to jump ship, and cash in on the rewards of being a lobbyist. (As Represent.US calculated for the members they followed, the average salary increase: 1452%.)
I’m all for reasonable term limits — as part of a real package of reform. (Here’s a podcast “debate” with Richard Epstein in which we both come to the same view about term limits, and about the effect of public funding for political campaigns.) But to pretend that term-limits solve anything is just to betray a total lack of seriousness about the promise to “drain the swamp.”
★ SECOND, a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health).
This has nothing to do with “corruption and special interest collusion.” Indeed, as the present insiders are looking for an out, this would create a real incentive to cut even better deals with the lobbyists.
★ THIRD, a requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated.
Again, completely unrelated to “corruption and special interest collusion” — though it would be great to begin to identify the many regulations designed to protect incumbents against competition and eliminate them.
★ FOURTH, a five-year ban on White House and Congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service.
As the law is now, this does little, because former officials structure their work so they don’t have to call themselves “lobbyists.” (They then throw a hissy fit if you call them a lobbyist—as I learned when I referred to former-Senator-then-lobbyist Scott Brown as a lobbyist, and he threatened to sue me (showing once again his deep understanding of the First Amendment). Fortunately, he later clarified his position by explaining that what he means is that he is not a “registered” lobbyist (see the video here). But as everyone in DC and out recognizes, to join a “law and lobbying firm” to help with Wall St’s “business and governmental affairs” is plainly to make yourself a lobbyist.)
To Trump’s credit, he has recently promised to radically expand the definition of a “lobbyist” (presumably to make it clear that people like Scott Brown have no right to threaten defamation suits when people call them “lobbyists.”) As he said in Green Bay, Wisconsin, last month:
I am going to expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants, advisers, all these different things.
If indeed he does this, that would be real progress (though of course, it would require an act of Congress.)
But it doesn’t do squat to affect the economy of funder influence—the focus of his early attacks on Bush. Whether or not officials can become lobbyists, members of Congress are still dependent on lobbyists to fund their campaigns.
★ FIFTH, a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.
Yea, ok, but again, few have thought this was the problem with “corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, DC.” The real problem in America is fundraising on behalf of American special interests.
★ SIXTH, a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.
Not sure what this even means: That they can’t be bundlers? Because “foreigners” already can’t give money to political campaigns. Maybe it means they can’t help direct money to SuperPACs, though of course to know whether they did, you’d have to eliminate the dark money loophole at the core of the SuperPAC game — something not included in the “six measures.”
So again: The core problem Trump spoke about last fall (the “dependence” of candidates on special interest money, and “this whole Super PAC scam”) is nowhere in his list of “measures to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, DC.” That’s no doubt because Trump has been told that defending SuperPAC’s is his Senate Majority Leader’s #1 cause — making it quite unlikely that Trump will do anything to end the “disaster” of SuperPACs—a disaster because, as he said as late as March, they are “very corrupt.”
If Trump wants some genuinely useful (and Republican) ideas for how to “drain the swamp,” he should listen less to Mitch “Mr. SuperPAC” McConnell (who denies there’s even any corruption in DC), and listen more to George W. Bush’s former ethics czar, Richard Painter.
Painter’s book, Taxation Only With Representation (2016), the first Tea Party slogan, proposes $200 tax-credit/vouchers to fund small dollar funded campaigns. That would be real reform—though again, as exactly one Republican in Congress has endorsed anything remotely like this kind of public funding proposal, such legislation from a Republican Congress is quite unlikely.