Norman Eisen, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, co-founded and chairs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Peter Schweizer is president of Government Accountability Institute.
As founders of two leading government watchdog groups that come from very different perspectives, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Government Accountability Institute, we welcome President-elect Donald Trump’s commitment to “drain the swamp.” We here offer, in our personal capacities, five joint recommendations that the president-elect should pursue to implement that critically important campaign promise:
1. Registered lobbyists. The president-elect has made a good start by ejecting corporate lobbyists from his transition and by committing to ban former members of his administration from registered federal and state lobbying for five years after leaving government service. In addition, the new administration should look to slow the “reverse revolving door,” setting up rules regulating the financial conflicts of lobbyists who enter his administration. President Obama established a set of rules to address this issue. After all, when special-interest influencers enter government, they get their hands directly on the wheels of power that they were formerly trying to affect from outside.
2. Shadow lobbyists. Of course, it is not only registered lobbyists who have financial conflicts of interest. Because of the notoriously porous Lobbying Disclosure Act, many in Washington engage in lobbying activity without having to register. Too much influence is still exerted in these shadows, as the president-elect correctly recognized when he vowed to close lobbying registration loopholes. The best way for him to accomplish this is to address all those who bring financial conflicts of interest with them into his administration, not only lobbyists. Why not go one step beyond the Obama order, which had separate rules for lobbyists and non-lobbyists, by offering a single tough set of financial-conflicts rules that applies to all appointees? This would lift up Obama’s lobbying rules to also apply to “public relations consultants” and the like, including those who hire them. We support a draft executive order offered by a bipartisan group of experts that would do that as a starting point for the president-elect’s review. The beauty of this approach is that the new president can begin addressing lobbying loopholes with the stroke of his pen for executive-branch appointees while he seeks revisions to the lobbying statute in Congress.
3. Transparency. High ethics standards are important, but they must be complemented by transparency for government to work well. Indeed, this is one of the strongest areas of agreement among the left, right and center of the political spectrum. To drain the swamp, Trump should make a strong commitment to transparency — among other things, by continuing the policy of posting White House visitor records on the Internet, and even expanding this disclosure to other agencies. This year Congress passed, on a bipartisan basis, a Freedom of Information Act upgrade that we hope the new administration will vigorously enforce. And the president-elect should, above all, get off on the right foot by releasing his tax returns, as we have both previously called upon him to do.
4. Campaign finance. Campaign cash is the bilge that waters the D.C. swamp. The problem of unregulated, undisclosed donations is one on which a supermajority of the American public agrees. The danger of big money in politics extends beyond campaigns and includes fundraising for inaugural events as well. Candidate Trump was correct to condemn the corrupting influence of donor dollars on our system. There is a variety of proposed solutions on the right and left, and though there is some room for honest disagreement, there is more consensus than one might think. Why not appoint an independent, bipartisan Simpson-Bowles type of commission to come up with recommendations?
5. Tone at the top. The president-elect has made a good first step with his announcement on Twitter that he will “be leaving” his business “in total” and will be taking himself “completely out of business operations.” We both believe he should do that by transferring all his business interests to a blind trust or the equivalent. While he is correct that the general conflict-of-interest statute 18 U.S. Code 208 does not apply specifically to him, creating such a trust or taking similar steps, as every president for the past four decades has done, will set an important tone of integrity at the top for everyone in his administration as they address their own ethics and conflicts issues.
On Jan. 20, Trump will be the president of all Americans. Although we do not agree with each other — or, indeed, with the president-elect — on all of the his policies, we hope he will succeed in his pledge to fight special-interest influence. The swamp is deep, and draining it is an essential task.