Trump’s Lifting of Ban on Lobbying Raises Questions About “Draining the Swamp”

On his final day in office, President Donald Trump rescinded his executive order blocking executive branch employees from immediately becoming lobbyists to the agencies where they worked in government.

When President Trump signed the order back in the first week of his term, he promoted it as a tool to reduce corruption. By keeping former bureaucrats from lobbying their former colleagues for special favors on behalf of their new employers for a period of five years, the order would contribute to keeping his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post describes the early reaction to the executive order:

Ethics experts at the time noted the order had loopholes — but still offered cautious praise for Trump’s attempt at halting the revolving door that allows government employees to use their positions to land lucrative jobs in the private sector.

By contrast, President Barack Obama notoriously failed to prevent his former executive branch employees from cashing in on their public service connections, despite having made a similar promise.

Weak Sauce

Though it was more than Obama had done, President Trump’s executive order wasn’t much of a barrier to former officials who had signed the pledge required by the order from moving on to careers as lobbyists. The Daily Caller News Foundation‘s Thomas Catenacci explains how it turned out to be some pretty weak sauce:

The pledge only required appointees to agree not to lobby the agency they worked in and didn’t necessarily prohibit them from lobbying other agencies.

The order also didn’t expand the definition of what a lobbyist is, Politifact reported. Former administration officials could therefore engage in “lobbyist-like” activities.

In rescinding the executive order limiting the post-government career options of his appointed officials, President Trump demonstrated the futility of using executive orders in place of legislation to achieve lasting reforms. By doing so on behalf of the interests of those whom he had appointed to executive branch positions, he boosted their post-government service income earning potential.

Time for Real Reform

Writing in USA Today, Glenn Reynolds proposes what may be a much more effective tool to prevent bureaucrats from cashing in on their government connections. He calls for a 50 percent surtax on all post-government income earned by former government employees above and beyond their government paychecks during the first five years after they leave public service.

If President Joe Biden cares about stopping bureaucrats from exploiting the government’s revolving door, he can show it by getting on board in support making Reynolds’ proposal into law. If he wants to send a message to all executive branch employees, he could call for a 75 percent surtax. As Reynolds’ explains:

This seems fair. After all, when it comes to your value as an ex-government official, it really is a case of “you didn’t build that.” Your value to a future employer comes from having held a taxpayer-funded position and from having wielded taxpayer-conferred power. Why shouldn’t the taxpayers get a cut?

If you think about it, it’s the ultimate sin tax. In any case, it’s time for real reform. The kind that is written into law.

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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