To hear the White House tell it, Donald Trump is ushering in a new era of good government. Aides point to the downfall this week of a leading Democratic lobbyist and the lower spending on lobbying in general as evidence that influence peddling and backroom dealing are increasingly relics.
But if you scratch beneath the surface just a little bit, these White House claims fall apart.
The truth, argues Brendan Fischer, the directors of federal reform programs at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, is that “despite Trump’s drain the swamp rhetoric the swamp has only grown deeper.”
The dispute came to the fore this week when President Donald Trump appeared to suggest that the fallout over a scandal ensnaring his former campaign chairman was actually a sign of apparent success in his swamp-draining efforts.
Paul Manafort, the former chairman, was accused by the Justice Department his week of illegally lobbying on behalf of foreign governments and laundering the money through offshore shell corporations. The indictment handed down against him and his deputy, former Trump campaign official Rick Gates, implicated the Podesta Group, a powerhouse Washington lobbying firm.
Within a day of the indictment, Tony Podesta, the firm’s principal, had resigned. The firm then announced that it would rebrand, as a means of distancing itself from its founder, who started the Podesta Group with his brother, Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, in the late 1980s.
In a day of very bad developments for the Trump administration, the Podesta news gave the president an opportunity to crow. “He and his brother,” John and Tony Podesta, “could Drain The Swamp, which would be yet another campaign promise fulfilled,” Trump tweeted.
The tweet received relatively little attention during a hectic news cycle. But, read literally, the president appeared to suggest that Podesta’s resignation showed that the proverbial swamp had been proverbially drained—even though that resignation was the result of allegedly criminal conduct by two of his most senior campaign operatives.
The White House’s explanation of the tweet did little to clarify those apparent inconsistencies. “The President is saying that Hillary Clinton and Democrat lobbyists in Washington could never drained the Washington swamp,” White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters told The Daily Beast in an email. She did not respond to followup questions.
Even before then, however, the Trump administration was patting itself on the back.
On Sunday, the president’s staff sought to push back on a Daily Beast report tallying up all administration nominees who have worked in, lobbied for, or taken money from industries they were tapped to oversee or regulate (more than half of all such nominees have done so). To counter suggestions that that amounts to widespread regulatory capture, Walters told The Daily Beast that, “Under the Trump administration, expenditures on lobbying have decreased, as firms stop finding it as profitable to try to buy influence and rig the game in their favor.”
To support that claim, a White House official pointed to a recent examination of lobbying expenditures by the Center for Responsive Politics, which found that such expenditures in the third quarter of 2017 were the lowest they’d been since the organization began tracking those numbers.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, CRP noted in a story on its website. “Third-quarter lobbying is typically the slowest quarter in Washington as legislators leave for August recess, but the decline in both spending and registered lobbyists was dramatic even for the slow months,” the group wrote. “Despite the third-quarter dip, however, 2017 spending is on pace to pass 2016 totals due to an influx of spending during the first six months of the year. Overall, the lobbying world has spent about $2.43 billion this year compared to $2.38 billion at the same point in 2016.”
That’s because it is the actions of the legislative branch, not the executive’s directives, that have the most impact on federal lobbying expenditures. The first quarter of 2017, for instance, saw higher federal lobbying expenditures than any equivalent period since 2010, when Congress was finalizing legislation that would become Obamacare, according to data provided by CRP. With Congress getting little done, and legislators on recess for most of the third quarter, lower spending on lobbying would be expected.
“Congressional inactivity impacts lobby spending,” Dan Auble, a senior researcher at CRP, said in an email.
But beyond the legislative inactivity, there is another more nefarious explanation for why there is less lobbying overall: Much of it is simply going unreported.
“It is a well-known Washington scam that many lobbyists are lobbying without registering as lobbyists or reporting their lobbying expenditures,” said Fischer.
Indeed, a number of such “shadow lobbyists,” as CRP dubbed them in a separate report on Washington’s influence industry, are former Trump officials themselves. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, for example, resigned in May from the lobbying firm he had founded just months earlier. Instead, Lewandowski started a new political “advisory” firm that leverages his political connections to advance clients’ interests without officially qualifying as a “lobbying” firm—and hence without appearing in quarterly spending totals.
“Candidate Trump acknowledged these loopholes,” Fischer said, pointing to a campaign proposal last year to “expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisors when they truly serve as lobbyists.”
Pointing to such narrow indicators to claim success in its anti-corruption efforts, Fischer added, is a tacit admission that not much meaningful has been accomplished on that front.
“In the absence of any accomplishments in terms of ethics or lobbying reform, and with an ethical cloud hanging over the White House, pointing to the amount reported on lobbying over a single three month period totally reeks of desperation,” Fischer said.