Lobbyists, More Lobbyists, but Few Waivers: Trump's Inconvenient Ethics

08/07/2017 12:07 pm ET

Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” emerged in the course of his campaign for president as rhetoric. It was rhetoric that Trump didn’t even like. “I don’t love that expression,” Trump told a campaign crowd last year in Las Vegas. “So hokey…. And I said it two weeks ago to a big crowd, and I said it and the place went crazy…. And all of a sudden, I decided I love that expression. It’s a great expression. Crazy, right? Drain the swamp.”

The campaign rhetoric eventually turned into official policy as ethics Executive Order No. 13770 decreed on a lazy Saturday afternoon after Trump stepped into the White House. Some of the ethics policy is borrowed from the sweeping ethics executive order of his predecessor, Barack Obama. It even has the same name: “Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel.” But the differences are far more pronounced than the similarities.

For Obama, the ethics executive order was rigidly enforced, drawing the ire of the lobbying community angered by the policy’s constraints against the appointment of lobbyists into government. K Street fumed, mocking the restrictions as requiring lobbyists to wear a “scarlet L.”

For Trump, the ethics executive order is making no such waves on K Street. And for good reason: lobbyists are swarming into the Trump administration, at all levels, in all agencies. Trump dropped Obama’s restriction against lobbyists being appointed to agencies they had recently lobbied. A lobbyist in the Trump era may de-register on Monday and join the administration on Tuesday.

With just a fraction of administration posts filled so far, a study by Public Citizen entitled “The Company We Keep” has identified at least 133 former lobbyists appointed into the Trump administration. That amounts to about a quarter of all appointments in the analysis.

Far more troubling is the absence of any attempt to manage inherent conflicts of interest posed by appointing former lobbyists into governmental positions overseeing the same “specific issue areas” they had previously lobbied. Echoing a provision of Obama’s ethics executive order, Trump’s policy expressly prohibits former lobbyists from working on the same specific issue areas in government that they had lobbied on in the previous two years. If such lobbyists must be appointed to a position overseeing their previous work, because no one else could be found to fill those shoes, then the potential conflict of interest should be publicly identified and a formal waiver issued in writing.

In the Trump administration, just getting the waivers made public was a battle in itself. Trump initially refused to discuss who may or may not have received a waiver. Press reports revealed several appointees, such as former lobbyists Shahira Knight and Michael Catanzano, whose official duties clearly overlapped their lobbying work. This prompted demands for an explanation: Is the ethics policy being violated or did these lobbyists receive waivers? Under public pressure, the White House gave in and released 14 waivers, including waivers for Knight and Catanzano. But nearly all the waivers were undated and unsigned, raising speculation that many were written after the fact, covering up a general lack of attention within the administration to the ethics executive order.

Of these 14 waivers, and about a dozen more issued a week later, a total of four were lobbyist conflict of interest waivers. The problem here is that at least 32 former lobbyists have been appointed to overseeing the same specific issue areas lobbied who have not been identified as such by the Trump administration, and have not received any waivers. For example, Taylor Hansen, a lobbyist on higher education, was appointed special assistant to the Secretary of Education. Kristi Boswell, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, now serves as senior adviser to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. These are just a few of the dozens of lobbyist conflicts of interest.

The practice of getting company representatives appointed into government embodies the most brazen form of “regulatory capture,” in which businesses seek to control the agencies that oversee them. It is anyone’s guess in whose interest these former lobbyists will make official decisions – their client’s interest or the public’s interest. Odds strongly favor the former, especially since lucrative private sector employment again awaits a dutiful employee after their stint in government.

Not only is the integrity of government at stake, but these appointments have every appearance of directly violating Trump’s own ethics rules to drain the swamp.

Crazy, right? Then again, the election is over, and the campaign rhetoric has served its function.

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