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Ten Ways to (Actually) Drain the Swamp

It’s time to think seriously about what comes next.
July 13, 2020
Ten Ways to (Actually) Drain the Swamp
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

For the better part of the last two decades, hyper-partisanship and dysfunction have gripped the federal government. The only time when significant policies have been enacted into law is during the brief periods of unified control when one party controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. But even these periods have been suboptimal, because during these times of single-party control, policy debate is minimal and negotiation takes place only at the margins.

If this dynamic continues so that one-sided government is our only vehicle for problem solving, then we are all in for a very rough ride. Because good governance is best established through debate between honest actors. The process of negotiation is the process of removing the extreme and impractical, and amending the shortsighted––it is key to producing sound solutions.

And none of that has really existed in Washington for almost a generation. Why? There’s a pretty good reason, actually: Our political system is driven by inequitable laws that govern our elections, corrupt rules that regulate the crossroads between money and power, and partisan dictatorial processes that guide the legislative process in Congress.

If we want to change the dynamic of the federal government, we have to reform the political system itself. Here’s how we start.

(1) Lifetime ban on lobbying for former members of Congress, the president, Senate-confirmed appointees, and all senior staff for said offices.

Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Republican lobbyist, told CBS in 2012, “when we would become friendly with an [elected official] I would say… ‘you know, when you’re done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us.’ The moment I said that… we owned them.”

“We owned them” is the definition of corruption.

Even if an elected official is not directly engaged by an Abramoff-like figure, everyone knows the game. How one votes and conducts business on the Hill has a huge impact on future job prospects. A rough average of 60 percent of all elected officials and staff transfer to lobbying after Congress, with an average pay increase of more than $2.4 million for congressmen.

Take away that career path and the considerations on how to vote on any given legislation changes overnight––a positive change for the American people.

(2) Prohibit anyone who is paid to lobby the president of the United States or Congress from contributing, bundling contributions, or holding fundraisers for federal candidates or PACs.

Elections are won and lost on fundraising. Not only does a sizable war chest buy things like TV advertisements, but it wards off potential challengers and perpetuates power.

So, if a lobbyist has the ability to hold a fundraiser that will raise $50,000 for an elected official and that lobbyist has a “friendly” chat with staff about an upcoming bill, then everyone knows the score.

In every consideration the question is whether the elected official has more to gain from pleasing a special interest or pleasing a majority of voters. Take away the ability of lobbyists to reward members of Congress and you take a significant step toward giving the influence back to the voters.

Protecting First Amendment rights is of vital importance, but there must be a firewall to stop special interest groups from using campaign donations to buy votes.

(3) Eliminate the loophole that allows former members of Congress to operate as shadow lobbyists.

According to the Lobbying Disclosure Act, to be a lobbyist one must spend “20 percent or more of his or her time in services [of a] client over any three-month period.”

That means a person could work 2.5 weeks straight influencing policy, then do nothing else for the client during the quarter—and not have to register as a lobbyist.

The extent of shadow lobbying is detailed in a 2013 paper by political scientists Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas. Their key findings? Less than half of all lobbying is reported.

If an individual is advocating to influence public policy in any meaningful way, they should be forced to register as a lobbyist.

(4) Prohibit Congress from all fundraising activities, Monday through Saturday, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., while Congress is in session.

Elected leaders spend dozens of hours every week making calls to donors. Former Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan told CBS in 2016 that both the Democratic and Republican parties tell newly elected members to spend 30 hours each week making fundraising calls after they arrive in Washington. Former Congressman and Republican David Jolly echoed similar sentiments, saying he was expected to raise $18,000 every single day. Repeat: That’s $18,000 from calls. Every. Single. Day.

That is madness. Is it any wonder nothing gets done in DC?

(5) Political campaigns and organizations—including 501(c)(4) nonprofits—report contributions of $250 or more to a publicly accessible website every day.

Today, most donations are not disclosed for months. Some are never made available online. And others aren’t disclosed until after an election.

There is no reason that donations (or aggregated donations) of $250 or more can’t be made public on a website within 24 hours of receipt of the donation. Americans have a right to know who is funding a campaign and determine for themselves what the motivation is for that donation.

(6) Prohibit Leadership PACs that have no restriction on how their funds are used.

Leadership PACs are used by virtually every member of Congress. Their special sauce is that they have no restrictions on how money is spent. In layman’s terms, they’re slush funds.

Need to spend $4,500 on limousines in Rome? Rand Paul’s Leadership PAC can help with that. How about $15,000 on Celtics tickets for your people? No problem, you’re sitting courtside with Devine Nunes. Need to pay a mistress? Country club dues? Yep, your Leadership PAC is here to help.

The legal intent for these PACs is to make contributions to other caucus members. The practice was brought to Washington by Democrat Henry Waxman as a means to essentially buy votes from other members so as to gain enough votes for a desired committee assignment. But since Republicans passed rules in 1994 that gave party leadership the authority to appoint committee assignments, the role of Leadership PACs has changed. Today the PAC’s main use—besides the personal slush fund—is to wine and dine big donors, bundlers, and other Washington insiders.

(7) Provide a $250 tax write-off for contributions to political campaigns for Americans who make less than $100,000.

If money is power, then let’s give people greater incentive to put skin in the game. And if politicians can count on more small dollar donations, then perhaps they will have greater motivation to ignore the big-dollar special interest groups and lobbyists.

(8) Place in a blind trust all stock holdings of federally elected leaders and federal appointees who require Senate confirmation.

Americans who are leading the government and creating legislation should not have their votes, debate position, or any type of recommendations influenced by personal monetary considerations. It’s not just about insider trading, it’s about knowing which stocks are owned and how legislation (or a specific provision) will affect share price.

Blind trusts will create more honest decision making and foster greater trust between elected officials and the people.

(9) Term limits of 14 years in the House and 18 years in the Senate, with no more than 20 years total years in Congress.

Mitch McConnel has been in Congress for 35 years. Nancy Pelosi 33 years. Pat Leahy 45 years. Chuck Grassley 45 years. Chuck Schumer 39 years. On the one hand, institutional knowledge is good. On the other hand, being bubbled-in and obstinate with an inflated idea of self-worth is bad.

Term limits would not only help to remove feuding personalities and instill new energy into policy making, but most importantly, would diminish the influence of big money in politics and the time that politicians devote to cultivating relationships with mega donors. Because if there is a firm end to service, staying in the good graces of lobbyists and special interest groups isn’t as important.

Working in tandem with banning lobbying jobs after Congress, a finite number of years in Washington will serve as motivation to create a legacy of problem solving.

(10) Reform the Federal Election Commission by making it a completely independent body.

The FEC is a toothless body that is manipulated by political insiders.

Over the last 12 months there has been one month––repeat, one month––in which the body has had a quorum to do business. It is a six-person commission, with only three commissioners presently serving. Of those three, one is a devout Republican insider and the other two have served 12 years and 6 years past their term expirations.

The commission needs a complete overhaul that not only fixes the systemic problems, but also asserts the regulatory body as a strong, independent agency.

The FEC should be transformed from a body that is predominantly made up of party insiders and made into a body composed solely of Americans who are not only independent of Republican and Democratic politics, but also have no connection to lobbying or special interest groups. The number of commissioners should be reduced from six to five so as to negate deadlocks. And it should make use of impartial administrative law judges to decide enforcement proceedings.

Until America reforms the political system itself, the federal government will continue to operate spasmodically, at best.

If our nation is to endure for another 250-odd years, then we the people must aggressively and loudly back leaders who will fight to enact policies which transform the way Washington conducts its business.

Apathy to political reform, is apathy to future liberty, security, and prosperity.

Nicholas Connors

Nicholas Connors is founder of NSC Strategies, where he leads strategy and the implementation of tactics for political and media relations campaigns. He is a veteran of five political campaigns - including two presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter: @NicholasConnors.