Can Trump change Washington?

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A man holds up a "Drain the Swamp in Washington DC" sign as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign event on the tarmac of the airport in Kinston, North Carolina, U.S., October 26 2016.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX2QMMZ

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HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn now to domestic politics and potential changes ahead under President Trump, specifically changes in Washington, where Mr. Trump has pledged to — quote — “drain the swamp.”

Lisa Desjardins reports.

DONALD TRUMP (R), President-Elect: America deserve a government that can work.

LISA DESJARDINS: He repeatedly rallied supporters with the promise, as candidate and as president-elect.

DONALD TRUMP: My contract with the American voter begins with a plan to end government corruption and to take our country back from the special interests. I want the entire corrupt Washington establishment to hear and heed the words. We’re going to drain the swamp of corruption in Washington, D.C.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LISA DESJARDINS: And, as president-elect, Donald Trump has laid out some specifics. Consider Trump’s Contract With the American voter, the blueprint for his first 100 days as president.

The very first item? Amending the Constitution to put term limits on members of Congress, six years tops for House members, 12 years for senators. A little farther down, there’s a five-year ban on White House and congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government, and just under that, a lifetime ban on his White House officials from ever lobbying for foreign governments.

Mr. Trump is not the first to make with this cry. Consider then-candidate Obama in 2008.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The key is whether or not we have got priorities that are working for you, as opposed to those who have been dictating the policy in Washington lately. And that’s mostly lobbyists and special interests. We have got to put an end to that.

LISA DESJARDINS: President Obama banned former lobbyists from serving in his White House, but he also gave some waivers. As for Mr. Trump, some of those he’s picked to help him drain the swamp also happen to be longtime Washington hands.

Mick Mulvaney, his pick for budget director, is a three-term congressman. And his health secretary choice, Tom Price, has been in Congress for more than a decade.

Meantime, some question if Mr. Trump is serious, especially after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this to NPR last week about the drain the swamp motto:

NEWT GINGRICH, Former Speaker of the House: I’m told he now disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore.

LISA DESJARDINS: Gingrich issued a full reversal the next day, saying he was wrong and the President-elect Trump is indeed serious about — quote — “draining the swamp.”

I’m joined by two guests with careers focused on how Washington works.

Paul Miller is founder and president of the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics. And Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Thanks to you both.

Paul Miller, let’s start with you.

Clearly, voters have a message for Washington. They feel that those in power may not be enriching themselves or may not be connected to the rest of the country. Donald Trump is responding to that with some of these ideas, like a lobbying ban.

Do lobbyists understand that argument, and how do you react to what Mr. Trump is proposing?

PAUL MILLER, President, The National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics: We understand it. I’m not sure the rest of Washington gets it, i.e., Congress.

This election wasn’t about banning lobbyists. This was about gridlock in Washington. And members of Congress have the ability to vet on or to pass legislation. We do not. So, yes, we do get that.

The things Mr. Trump is talking about, one, I would deem several of them unconstitutional, and the others just unworkable based on the system that we have in place today.

LISA DESJARDINS: First, lobbyists aren’t without influence. To put all of Washington’s problems on the elected, is that completely fair?

PAUL MILLER: I would say yes.

I mean, I don’t have a voter card, unless I missed it that day that it was handed out when I became a lobbyist that said, you get to go to the House or Senate floor and vote on legislation, or you get to go to the White House and take that magic pen and sign legislation into law.

I’m not the one sending myself fund-raising notices asking for money. So, members of Congress and the administration could just do their thing, and they don’t have to say, hey, it’s the lobbyists’ fault. It’s their fault.

LISA DESJARDINS: Well, what is the problem with saying, if you choose to work for government, you must for five years after that not become a lobbyist for government? Why is that — what problem is there with that?

PAUL MILLER: Because the way some of the — again, we haven’t seen all the details of what Mr. Trump is proposing. It’s always the devil is in those details, but some of the legislation that is being proposed by members of the House that are out, this five-year ban is for executive — members of the executive branch.

It doesn’t now say a member of Congress who leaves, that you have to now have a five-year ban on what you do. There’s only a two-year cooling-off period for current members of Congress and staff.

So, now you’re going to say, for executive branch officials, it’s five years.

LISA DESJARDINS: But do you have a problem with that on its own?

PAUL MILLER: I do on the five-year, yes. The two-year is fine by my standard.

This is an honor system program anyway. My issue with this whole thing is that, one, where else in America, what profession do you tell them that they cannot practice their craft after they leave a job? You talk about the voters today. They don’t want career politicians.

So you should want people coming in and out of government, and today this ban prohibits that.

LISA DESJARDINS: Sheila Krumholz, what do you think about what Donald Trump is doing here? Is it time to restrict lobbying activities for those people who work for us? Is it time for this conversation? What do you make of this?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ, Executive Director, Center for Responsive Politics: Well, we’re overdue for the conversation.

And actually it’s one that we had in the last — the first term of the Obama administration, when he campaigned in 2008 in particular. But it’s easy to score points on bashing Washington. That’s just a perennial on any presidential campaign.

And lobbyists come in for most of the slugs.

LISA DESJARDINS: I see Paul…

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: And it is an industry that I think bears more scrutiny, because their whole job, their mission is to buy and trade influence.

They have access. So, if you want to sell a product and you need to navigate the halls of power and you’re not familiar with Washington or how legislation gets passed or how regulations get stopped, it is immensely helpful to be able to afford a lobbyist to help you navigate.

LISA DESJARDINS: So, what you’re saying, they play an important role in Washington.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Lobbyists absolutely play an important role, and they provide information. And information is always good. More information is better.

LISA DESJARDINS: But then my question to you both, though, is clearly do you also place all the blame with Washington on only our elected officials? Or what else in Washington culturally needs to change?

You know, Donald Trump says draining the swamp, but he’s tapping into something here about how voters feel toward all of Washington. From your point of view, Sheila, what needs to change culturally in Washington?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Well, I think we need to have a conversation about how things really work in our democracy.

And from our perspective, of course, we study campaign finance. So, from our perspective, a major part of the problem and the role is money in politics, so how money is raised, the role of lobbyists in raising it, and how the system is kind of mutually beneficial between candidates, members of Congress, and lobbyists who help them, both with legislation, crafting legislation, as well as with raising funds for their reelection.

LISA DESJARDINS: Paul, one other idea that Donald Trump says he will launch on day one is a constitutional amendment to term-limit politicians. You say that elected officials are the problem.

And I did some research and looked over the past years. It turns out if you look at the data that members of the House and Senate generally 87 to 89 percent of them return each year. That’s not a lot of turnover. That’s not a lot of fresh views necessarily in Congress.

What do you think of this idea for term limits? You’re critical of elected officials. Is this a way to solve that problem?

PAUL MILLER: Well, let me start first by saying — correct something. Lobbyists aren’t hired to buy people or buy members of Congress. We provide a valuable role in the system of government.

We provide information. You go to any House or Senate office today and look at the staff that they have there, you’re talking about 20-something folks who don’t have expertise in all areas that they’re responsible. They may handle four or five different issues, and yet to say we’re buying them is just again one of those…

LISA DESJARDINS: You’re saying you have expertise that these young staffers do not.

PAUL MILLER: We do, and that they need.

And so to your other question about term limits, we already have term limits. If people voted in larger numbers, you could take people and say, OK, we want them out. But you know what? Since 2010, the turnover rate has been higher. We have, I think, three-quarters of the Congress has turned over since 2010, if my numbers are correct.

So we do have the ability to vote people out. There’s your term limits. You just have to get more people to want to vote.

LISA DESJARDINS: All right, a conversation about term limits and lobbying and government that will continue.

Paul Miller, thank you so much.

Sheila Krumholz, thank you for joining us.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Thank you.

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