Donald Trump is, to put it delicately, an imperfect messenger for the cause of lobbying and ethics reform.
The men who managed his campaign for months, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, were top lobbyists accused of working as foreign agents in possible violation of U.S. law. His campaign and transition teams are littered with prominent industry lobbyists. And in his trafficking in falsehoods and disregard for Constitutional boundaries, Trump himself has not exactly been a paragon of high ethical standards.
And yet the Republican nominee’s 11th-hour, five-point plan for ethics reform is winning decent reviews from good-government advocates in Washington.
The proposals would ban executive-branch officials along with members of Congress and their staff from lobbying for five years after they leave the public sector. It would also expand the definition of “lobbying” to cut off lawmakers who immediately join big lobbying and law firms without formally registering as lobbyists. Trump’s bullet points are characteristically short on details, but in some cases they go well beyond what reformers have proposed.
“These are certainly steps in the right direction, and Common Cause certainly agrees with them and would like to see them enacted,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for the nonpartisan advocacy group.
Trump released his plan in a pair of speeches this week ahead of the final presidential debate on Wednesday, in what was a fairly transparent bid to shift the focus of his campaign away from his 2005 comments about groping women and the subsequent accusations of sexual assault that have helped Hillary Clinton widen her lead in the polls.
The proposals are principally aimed at shuttering D.C.’s so-called revolving door, in which officials routinely cash in their government service for big salaries and then shuttle between Congress, the administration, and plum lobbying jobs. The issue is an obvious one for a self-styled outsider to champion, especially in running against a candidate like Clinton, whose long ties to the Beltway establishment are a turn-off for voters seeking wholesale change.
“If we let the Clinton Cartel run this government, history will record that 2017 was the year America lost its independence,” Trump said in a speech Monday evening. “We will not let that happen. It is time to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.”
He then unveiled his five-point plan:
First: I am going to re-institute a 5-year ban on all executive branch officials lobbying the government for 5 years after they leave government service. I am going to ask Congress to pass this ban into law so that it cannot be lifted by executive order.
Second: I am going to ask Congress to institute its own 5-year ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and their staffs.
Third: I am going to expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisors when we all know they are lobbyists.
Fourth: I am going to issue a lifetime ban against senior executive branch officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.
And Fifth: I am going to ask Congress to pass a campaign finance reform that prevents registered foreign lobbyists from raising money in American elections.
The first three of those would undoubtedly shake up the Washington ecosystem. Reform advocates say that in practice, bans on executive officials lobbying the government have never exceeded two years. The law currently forbids members of Congress from registering as lobbyists for a year after they leave the Capitol.
There are no formal restrictions on staff, and it’s common for top aides to congressional leaders and influential committees to go directly into lobbying, except where firms prohibit it to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. “Something that long might disqualify certain people who are experts in their field. That might be too long,” said Scherb, who is himself a registered lobbyist.
Retiring or ousted members of Congress often join lobbying firms but take job titles like consultant or adviser that don’t involve registering officially as a lobbyist. Trump would go after that, too, by expanding the definition of lobbyist.
That could impact one of his Republican supporters, ex-House Speaker John Boehner, who joined the K Street firm Squire Patton Boggs last month, less than a year after he left Congress. Boehner will serve as a “strategic adviser” in a firm that employs several of his former aides along with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
“There are some good components there,” Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said of Trump’s ideas. Noting that the group does not take sides in elections, Gilbert said the plan was notably missing any real effort to reduce the influence of big money in politics, a top priority for government reformers. Trump’s only mention of campaign-finance reform is a call to ban foreign lobbyists from raising money in U.S. elections, which Gilbert and Scherb each said was not a pressing issue.
Clinton has focused more on campaign-finance reform, but she has endorsed a proposal by Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin that would more narrowly address some of the revolving-door issues that Trump wants to tackle, including expanding the definition of what it means to be a lobbyist. Clinton’s campaign declined to comment specifically on Trump’s proposals.
Trump’s biggest challenge is that three of his five proposals require Congress to act on ethics reform, something it usually does only in response to a major scandal. And in the case of the five-year lobbying ban on lawmakers and their staff, he is banking on Congress choosing to sharply restrict itself in a way that could cost members hundreds of thousands of dollars in future salary.
“In our current congressional set-up, it’s tough to pass any law,” Gilbert said—let alone a bill that would hit lawmakers in their wallets. The proposals drew little immediate support from Trump’s ostensible allies on Capitol Hill; spokesmen for both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not return requests for comment.
Trump followed up his ethics plan on Tuesday with an even more surefire political winner: a call for a Constitutional amendment instituting congressional term limits. The idea was a cornerstone of the GOP’s Contract for America in 1994, but it has never come close to being enacted. It remains a popular plank for long-shot candidates who are trying to oust veteran incumbents and seize on the sustained unpopularity of Congress as an institution.
In many ways, however, term limits would empower the very lobbyists that Trump says he wants to rein in. Many members of Congress arrive in Washington with little knowledge of government or the details of policy, and those with less experience rely even more on staff and outside lobbyists to write the bills they vote on. While ensuring that Congress turns over more rapidly, term limits would strip the House and Senate of the institutional memory and policy expertise of their most senior members.
Three weeks before Election Day, those are probably the least of Trump’s concerns. He’s looking for a quick fix for his flagging campaign, to remind voters that he is the candidate of change and Clinton is the candidate of cronyism. Some of his ideas have merit, but it may be too late to convince the electorate that he should be the one to implement them.