The leader of a bipartisan good-government group, Zach Wamp, headed to the White House last week to ask whether President Donald Trump's "drain the swamp" slogan would ever be more than a throwaway campaign slogan. One of the president's closest aides, Steve Bannon, assured him it's a priority.
Bannon said he "agrees with the concept that Washington is rigged," said Wamp, a former Republican congressman. "He said he just needs to figure out what to do about it."
Yet within 48 hours of the visit, the White House announced the end of an Obama administration practice aimed at greater transparency in government: It would no longer release the names of visitors to the executive mansion.
It was another step away from the goal of "drainage," curbing the outsized influence of Washington powerbrokers. Then, a filing this week showed that the president raised a record $107 million for his inauguration, much of it from companies and people who do business with the government.
Trump also has brought scores of special-interest players into government. And he has yet to push any proposals to tighten campaign finance or lobbying disclosure rules.
Trump's boldest anti-swamp move — a January executive order limiting the lobbying of outgoing officials — has already been undermined by a waiver he granted to at least one departing employee. The administration says it will never share information about when or why it makes those decisions, another change from the Obama era.
"What they do on 'drain the swamp' is very much to-be-determined," Wamp said. "I think — at least I hope — my stop there last week was a reminder that these things matter."
Bannon did not respond to requests for comment, and the White House says it considers Trump's early bureaucracy-slimming moves to be part of its drain-the-swamp work. At a rally last month in Louisville, Kentucky, Trump re-upped his vow: "We are going to drain the swamp of government corruption in Washington, D.C., and we are going to keep our promises, all of the promises that we made."
Indeed, "drain the swamp" is scrawled on one of chief strategist Bannon's white boards documenting those campaign pledges. Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican who wrote a book about the corrupting influence that fundraising has on Congress (titled, conveniently, "Drain the Swamp"), said Trump has "surrounded himself with people who want to find solutions." He is optimistic that the president will make good on his word but argues that a mile-long White House to-do list means it'll take time.
Democrats are skeptical Trump will ever deliver.
"There's a huge gap between what he's said going back to his campaign days, and what he's done," said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who has introduced several bills aimed at reducing money in politics. "I don't at this point have any confidence that anything he said about accountability and transparency was anything more than a head fake."
Tackling corruption in Washington — a goal tied to increasing transparency and decreasing the influence of lobbyists and major donors — interests people of all political persuasions. A January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 66 percent of Americans agree that "reducing the influence of lobbyists and big money in politics" is an "absolute priority for this year."
Wamp works with a Washington-based nonprofit called Issue One, which has collected 180 past and current public officials from both major parties in what it calls the "reformers caucus" and is pitching Capitol Hill on ways to change the way politicians raise money.
Issue One, like other good-government advocates, has been sharply critical of Trump's secrecy decisions. Yet Issue One also sees the unconventional president as a natural potential partner, particularly on campaign finance changes such as incentivizing small donors and making the Federal Election Commission enforce rules already on the books.
Trump raised a stunning $282 million from donors giving $200 or less to his 2016 campaign and a joint account with the Republican Party. Even a tweet urging lawmakers to take up the subjects of money in politics and lobbying would help, Wamp said. "His bully pulpit is like no other."
A CBS News poll just before Trump's inauguration found that just under half of Americans think he will be able to get big money out of politics in the next four years. In a twist, Democrats and Independents more so than Republicans had faith in Trump on that issue, according to the poll.
Meredith McGehee, a senior adviser at Issue One who has worked for decades on campaign finance proposals, said money in politics has always been a "third rail" topic because lawmakers want to preserve their seats by preserving the status quo on fundraising. That means not only spending countless hours dialing for dollars for their own campaign accounts but also for leadership accounts that get parceled out to help the rest of the party.
"It's an insider system, and Trump did not run on being an insider," McGehee said. Buck also makes that case in his book.
As Wamp said he put it to Bannon: "Trump would not be president if the stench from the swamp hadn't gotten so bad in the first place."
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