Why 'draining the swamp' makes America dumber

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jeffrey lord robert reich trump wealthy cabinet picks panel ac360_00010104

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Is Trump backtracking on 'draining the swamp'? 09:35

Story highlights

  • Lee Drutman: Trump's "Drain the Swamp" message (falsely) promised an easy solution to a hard problem
  • The reality of democracy is that national policymaking is complicated and always will be, he writes

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform Program at New America. He is the author of "The Business of America is Lobbying." The opinions expressed here are his own.

(CNN)With each passing day, it's harder and harder to take Donald Trump's campaign promise to "drain the swamp" seriously.

Between the parade of billionaires he has nominated for cabinet secretary positions and the endless stream of conflicts of interest Trump will face separating his businesses from his presidency, the idea that Trump is somehow going to rid Washington of special interests seems more and more laughable.
Lee Drutman
But to anyone who understood how Washington works, his "drain the swamp" proposals should have been laughable from the start.
    Trump's proposals targeted three types of alleged swamp creatures: members of Congress, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. For the members of Congress, he proposed term limits. For the bureaucrats, he proposed a hiring freeze. And for the lobbyists, he proposed a five-year ban on lobbying after working in his administration and a promise that no "registered" lobbyists would work for his administration.
    To the extent that any coherent argument exists behind these proposals, it might be best described this way: members of Congress, bureaucrats, and lobbyists are all in cahoots with each other, and they screw over the American people, so they're out. In the Trump campaign's language: "We have to give new voices a chance to go into government service."
    Ah, there it is. The great myth that all we need is some fresh thinking: get rid of the "career politicians," and bring in outsiders to just shake stuff up. And then, finally, we will root out the corruption.
    If only it were that easy. If only policymaking were just a matter of applying good old-fashioned common sense. If only policymaking didn't require difficult trade-offs among endless competing interests, many with legitimate arguments. If only policymaking didn't require resolving significant complexities that arise from an $18 trillion economy and a nation of 320 million people and thousands upon thousands of pages of existing rules.
    Many states have tried term limits -- 15, to be exact. Political scientists have studied the effects of term limits. The results are pretty clear: term limits do indeed mean fresh faces in the legislatures. But they're mostly fresh faces who don't know what they're doing. To learn the ropes, these fresh faces inevitably turn to the people who have been around for a while. And that's generally the lobbyists and the agency bureaucrats. So, if your goal is to empower lobbyists and bureaucrats, term limits is a great plan.
    What about hiring freezes for federal agencies? Certainly, many federal agencies could be more efficient, and, yes, it's a problem that tens of thousands of federal workers are on paid leave while being disciplined for misbehavior. But hiring freezes aren't a solution -- they're a guarantee of brain drain. To function well, the federal workforce needs to be able to attract and retain top talent. Hiring freezes and attrition will simply mean that many of the most talented people leave, leaving agencies stuck more and more with personnel who can't find jobs elsewhere.
    And as government bureaucrats leave, this will also make agencies even more dependent on private lobbyists for policy expertise. After all, if you're the bureaucrat who sticks around and suddenly you have to take on a new issue with even less time, you won't have much ability to challenge an experienced industry lobbyist who comes and tells you that if you do the wrong thing, some disaster will happen and it will be all your fault. More likely, you'll be grateful for somebody who can just explain the issue to you.
    While there is certainly a need for federal workforce reforms (it should be easier to fire poor performers, for example), a blanket hiring freeze intended to shrink the workforce by attrition will only make the federal government more dependent on lobbyists.
    Finally, there is the cosmetic ban on "registered" lobbyists. To go from being registered as a lobbyist to not being registered is very easy. And as for the five-year ban on lobbying after serving in the Trump administration, there are serious enforcement problems, especially given the ways in which lobbying regulations are easily shirked. As lobbying regulations have increased over the years, many lobbyists have simply just de-registered, becoming, in effect, "shadow lobbyists" who avoid the narrow legal definition of "lobbyist" by carefully structuring their time so what they devote to "covered activities" falls under certain thresholds that would require them to register. If it sounds complicated to enforce, it is. Which is why a lot of would-be "lobbyists" can get away with it.
    Still, Trump's "drain the swamp" message resonated because there is widespread belief that government is corrupt, and Washington is a mess. It also resonated because it promised an easy solution to a hard problem.
    But the reality of democracy in the world's largest economy and third most-populous country is that national policymaking is complicated. It requires considerable knowledge and experience to understand the rules and resolve trade-offs. If you get rid of experienced policymakers and bureaucrats who understand these rules and trade-offs, it's not as if the problems of modern governance go away. Decision-makers simply rely more on private lobbyists, who are only too happy to fill the void by supplying decision-makers with expertise and know-how.
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    This is a harder story to tell, because it lacks a three-syllable chant. But democracy is a system for making hard trade-offs among competing interests. And to make those trade-offs fairly and intelligently requires knowledge and experience. The surest way to empower special interests is to make government dumber. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Trump has proposed to do.