Donald Trump vows to 'drain the swamp' in D.C. in first 100 days

Donald Trump's campaign soared to success as he decried a capital full of entrenched establishment politicians. Would term limits and restrictions on lobbyists work? 

Alex Brandon/AP
Melania Trump and her husband, President-elect Donald Trump, walk with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, as they depart after a meeting on Capitol Hill.

President-elect Donald Trump marketed himself as an brazen outsider intent on “draining the swamp” of establishment politicians in the nation’s capital if elected president – and he intends to get started on that in his first 100 days in office.

Mr. Trump rolled out the plan while speaking in Gettysburg, Pa., last month. By taking on career politicians, lobbyists, and regulation, the president-elect believes he can restore “honesty, accountability, and change” to American politics. But analysts say that certain policy reforms he’s suggesting – including a term limit on those serving in Congress and additional cooling-off period in between legislating and becoming a lobbyist – might not move new faces into House or Senate seats like Trump suggests they would.

“It’s not the sort of thing that going to enhance the capacity of the legislature or convince better people to serve in the legislature,” Josh Chafetz, a professor of law at Cornell University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “One question is whether or not there is a 'swamp' there to drain.”

The first, and possibly the boldest, part of Trump's plan is a Constitutional amendment imposing term limits on members of Congress. Other facets of his plan include barring the hiring of additional federal employees outside of military, public safety, and public health divisions, and placing a restriction on regulations, mandating that new federal regulations can only be put into place if two others are eliminated.

Trump is far from the first person to try to put term limits into action. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot set limits for their own representatives and senators after several tried to recast their own constitutions to do so. More than 20 states have laws on the books creating such limits that clashed with provisions in the US Constitution.

An amendment to limit the terms of members of Congress is possible but may be unfeasible, as only 17 amendments have been adopted in the more than 200 years since the 13 original states ratified the Constitution.

Constitutional amendments don't require the president's signature, but they do require a two-thirds majority of each house of Congress, where few support a rule change that jeopardizes their career paths.

"It will not be on the agenda in the Senate," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) told reporters this week. "I would say we have term limits now – they're called elections."

But even if the amendment were approved, it wouldn’t necessarily curtail corruption or bring fresh perspectives into the legislature. To put knowledgeable, appealing candidates in office, the job must be enticing enough  – and, some would argue, secure enough – for people to dedicate their time and effort to it. Competent legislators  need time to accrue a substantial amount of knowledge on a broad array of topics.

“Legislating actually does require an amount of expertise,” Mr. Chafetz says. “Basically, what term limits do, is to increase the power of lobbyists.”  

And that’s where the second leg of Trump's congressional reform would come to play: levying restrictions on lobbyists. Some of the vaguely worded tenets aim to curtail lobbying in favor of a foreign government, which would likely constitute a free speech violation, and keeping foreign money out of elections, which is already prohibited by law. But Trump’s idea to stop legislators from re-entering the game as lobbyists isn’t a new one, Tim LaPira, a professor of political science at James Madison University, tells the Monitor.

There is clear evidence that officials exiting the legislature are taking a trip through a “revolving door” into a lobbying career, as nearly half have done so in some capacity since leaving office in 2008, Politico reported. While the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 tried to remedy that phenomenon, it failed to do so and led more former congressional members to operate under the radar in positions that allowed them to still influence lawmaking.

Trump’s proposal would bar former White House officials and Congressional members from taking up positions as lobbyists for the first five years after they leave office, extending the one- to two-year ban created by the 2007 law.

“This would make that problem worse,” Dr. LaPira says. “It would extend the period that these lobbyists by another name would have to lobby underground or in the shadows.”

This makes defining the who’s who of lobbying and tracking their actions a daunting task. The federal government currently defines a lobbyist as someone who spends 20 percent of his or her time in a three-month window trying to influence Congress, congressional staff, federal funding agencies, and executive branch members with regard to policy or law making. Redefining that characterization would allow the government to incorporate and moderate those currently lurking in the legislative shadows.

“A focus on bans and cooling off periods is a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist,” LaPira says. “The much better way to achieve all of this is to vastly improve the public disclosure of who lobbyists are and what they're doing.”

Trump's proposals may be appealing at first glance, but they are unlikely to accomplish his goals, he says.

“Members of Congress all have constraints on them about what they can do and what they can’t do,” LaPira says. “They speak for themselves, and they are motivated by the levers of democratic representation.”  

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