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Will Trump walk the walk and really drain the DC swamp?

By Chen Weihua | China Daily USA | Updated: 2016-12-12 12:18

On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump swore that he would "drain the swamp" in Washington if elected. Reflecting the American public's great distaste for Washington, his words were hailed by fervently cheering crowds.

In January, Rasmussen Reports, which specializes in public opinion information, showed that 81 percent of Americans believe Washington is corrupt. A Gallup poll in September 2015 found that 75 percent of Americans saw widespread corruption in the country's government, a jump from 66 percent in 2009.

Trump announced his anti-corruption campaign on Nov 16 by setting out tough restrictions on lobbying by incoming officials. The rules require incoming officials to terminate their lobbying registration and pledge not to lobby again until five years after they leave the administration.

He also vowed a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of foreign governments, and a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for US elections.

Although no one seems sure how the rules will be enforced, it will be a move in the right direction, if truly carried out.

The horde of passengers getting off at Farragut North station on the Red Line of the city's metro rapid transit system every morning is quite a scene on my way to work. Outside the stop is the notorious K Street, the nickname for the lobbying industry where major lobbying firms assemble.

Having covered Washington for years, the question I often ask is why the thriving lobbying industry in Washington is even legal in the first place in a country that claims to be the world's "greatest democracy". Some think tanks also have their credibility called into question when their programs are funded by corporations, such as Lockheed Martin.

In Washington, countless former government officials and ex-members of Congress engage in the lobbying industry, using their connections and influence to push special interest agendas and enrich themselves.

With the ongoing US government transition, many who are leaving the Barack Obama administration will be sought after by major lobbying firms or may be planning to start their own lobbying operations.

If people believe that guanxi (connections) is uniquely Chinese, it is because they have not lived in Washington, where some 11,000 lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, are trying to use exactly that with the US Congress and federal government departments.

Chinese journalists covering Washington are often surprised to find a State Department official who briefed them about the US government's Asia and China policy just weeks earlier suddenly appearing as the head of a consulting company, and his business having questionable links with his previous official duties.

Such revolving-door cases are indeed a normal phenomenon in Washington.

For years, the top industries that have spent the most on lobbying include pharmaceuticals, insurance, business associations, oil and gas, education, tobacco, telecom services and defense aerospace.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that corporations are scrambling to retool their lobbying efforts as Republicans, preparing for control of the House of Representatives, Senate and White House in January, hope to break the partisan logjam that has blocked the passage of legislation for six years. Key issues for their hired guns will be immigration, healthcare, taxes, infrastructure and Wall Street regulations.

Andrew Bacevich, a historian at Boston University, wrote a week ago that if Trump were serious about overturning the Washington establishment, he'd start by ending the constant wars. In Bacevich's view, wars created the swamp in the first place. Wars empower Washington. They provide a reason for federal authorities to accumulate new powers.

It will be interesting to see if Trump will walk the talk on his "drain the swamp" pledge.

Contact the writer at chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com.


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