Is the swamp drained yet?
That the U.S. military should be led by people who have devoted their careers to maximizing profits for the defense industry is something that almost no one in Washington seems to think is the least bit inappropriate.
Though anyone with a functioning brain knew that Trump’s 2016 promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington and cure it of both official and unofficial corruption was an utter lie, the president has been unusually aggressive, even for a Republican, in turning over the federal government to corporate lobbyists. Esper’s is not even the only story from just the last couple of days that illustrates this fact, but we’ll start with him.
At Esper’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, most senators agreed he is an honorable public servant who will be a fine steward of the Department of Defense. There was one senator who objected, however. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted that Esper spent years as Raytheon’s chief lobbyist and called attention to his golden parachute from the company, which will continue to pay him in the future.
Warren then asked him whether he would commit to take steps to insulate himself from any conflict of interest, including promising not to involve himself in decisions affecting Raytheon and pledging not to return to a defense contractor for a few years after his time at the Pentagon is over. Every time, his answer was that he wouldn’t. Here’s how she summed it up at the end of her questioning:
So let me get this straight. You’re still due to get at least a million dollar payout from when you lobbied for Raytheon. You won’t commit to recuse yourself from Raytheon’s decision. You insist on being free to seek a waiver that would let you make decisions affecting Raytheon’s bottom line and your remaining financial interests. And you won’t rule out taking a trip right back through the revolving door on your way out of government service or even just delaying that trip for four years after you leave government.
Esper replied that he is committed to serving his country and objected to the implication that “anybody comes from the business or the corporate world is corrupt.” But of course, the steps Warren was urging him to take aren’t so much based on the presumption that he’s corrupt, but on the idea that we establish rules to insulate public officials from having even the opportunity to act corruptly so we don’t have to rely on their personal integrity.
Esper is not the only former lobbyist about to be elevated to the Cabinet. Now that Labor Secretary Alex Acosta is resigning over his connection to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, the department will be handed over to Patrick Pizzella, who is, you guessed it, a former lobbyist. Pizzella’s unremitting hostility to workers’ rights makes his choice kind of like appointing an antiwar activist to lead the Pentagon or a coal lobbyist to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
No Democratic president would ever consider doing the former, but Trump has already done the latter; that would be Andrew Wheeler, currently hard at work gutting the United States’ environmental regulations, which no doubt cheers his former employers in the coal industry.
Then there’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil company lobbyist. Like Wheeler, Bernhardt was the No. 2 at his agency under a much more high-profile and comically corrupt politician boss (Ryan Zinke in his case, Scott Pruitt in Wheeler’s case), whom the lobbyist replaced once the politician became too much of an embarrassment and was shown the door.
Those are just a few examples from the top layer, but below them in key positions you’ll never hear about there are literally hundreds of former corporate lobbyists running agencies they used to seek favors from.
I should say at this point that there are all kinds of lobbyists in Washington. There are people who lobby on behalf of environmental protection, and on behalf of workers’ rights, and on behalf of victims of domestic violence. Many of them have great expertise and would be valuable additions to any administration.
But those are obviously not the lobbyists most people think of when they hear the word. What they think of are corporate lobbyists, the ones who are employed to ensure that federal laws and regulations protect and enhance the profits of the corporations who employ them.
And it’s those lobbyists who have earned a special place in the Trump administration. We don’t treat that as scandalous, not only because it has gone on for a long time but also because there’s an assumption that it’s just how things work. Whaddaya gonna do?
Anyone familiar enough with the system knows that the rules we apply to government, about who can work there and what they can do after they leave, are insufficient to stop legalized corruption. Trump himself made a few such rules when he took office, but it turned out that in many cases they actually weakened existing ethics protections, and in others they were easily evaded.
So it turns out that you need both strong rules and good intentions on the part of the administration in general and the person who leads it. Right now we have neither.