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All The Swamps We Cannot Drain

A tour through the various legislative bills called “Drain The Swamp Act”

Every presidential election has its memorable slogans.

The 2016 election had three: “I’m With Her,” “Make America Great Again,” and “Drain the Swamp.” (Mercifully, the Hillary campaign considered but ultimately spared us from “because it’s her turn,” which would have become memorable in the wrong direction.) There were other sayings that generated notoriety — for example, “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!” — but they were too specific to function as campaign-defining imperatives.

Out of the three major ones, arguably the most significant for 2017 has been “Drain the Swamp.”

Obviously, Hillary lost the election, which means not enough voters, in crucial Rust Belt states, were “with her.” And while “Make America Great Again” is undoubtedly the most prominent slogan associated with Trump’s candidacy and presidency, one gets the sense that it’s an overarching promise, a full-term project, not the sort of transformation that is immediately actualizable in Trump’s first year.

When it comes to tracking Trump’s progress in year one, there is no better yardstick to use than Trump’s own promise to drain the swamp.

But this is not a piece about tracking Trump’s progress; it’s a piece about the promise itself, about the very notion of draining the swamp. This is a tour of 2017 through the various pieces of legislation with “Drain the Swamp” in the title. In this sense, we’ve just had a full year of draining the swamp. Not, you know, a full year of actually draining it, but a full year of considering legislation that promises to drain it.

Three things are typically meant by the phrase in question:

  1. The displacement of entrenched Washington interests
  2. Deregulation
  3. Greater government transparency

The various “Drain the Swamp” acts proposed in 2017 were each motivated by one or more of these principles.

Let’s take a look at the bills in chronological order.

Thus far, in the legislative window known as the 115th Congress (meeting from January 3, 2017 to January 3, 2019), there have been five different “Drain the Swamp” bills.

H.R. 484

Title: DRAIN the SWAMP Act

As is often the case, the title functions as an acrostic. Legislators use this tactic to build substance into a bill’s title, many times with unintentionally hilarious effects. “DRAIN” stands for Deter Revolving-door Appointments In our Nation, while “SWAMP” stands for Stop Washington Appointees from becoming Manipulative Petitioners.

Sponsor: Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR)

Four co-sponsors have signed on: Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY); Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC); Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH); and Barbara Lee (D-CA). Notice that despite the bill’s title being a reference to a Trumpian prerogative, none of the bill’s sponsors are remotely Trump friendly. According to data from FiveThirtyEight, Rep. DeFazio, the bill’s sponsor, votes with Trump 20 percent of the time, while the bill’s co-sponsors, Reps. Slaughter (14.3 percent), Shea-Porter (20 percent), and Lee (10.7 percent) either match DeFazio’s resistance or surpass it. (Rep. Norton is a non-voting member of the House of Representatives.)

Introduced: January 12, 2017

Summary: Originally introduced during the waning days of the 114th Congress, DeFazio released an updated version just prior to Trump’s inauguration.

The DRAIN the SWAMP Act has two goals. The first is to codify Trump’s pledge, made while president-elect, to impose a five-year lobbying ban for administration officials who leave the White House. The bill’s second goal is to place a lifetime ban on administration officials from becoming foreign agents or lobbying for foreign governments.

The impetus for Trump’s pledge, and for DeFazio’s bill, is a sense that the Obama-era ban of two years is quite simply inadequate.

DeFazio’s bill was upended by an executive order signed by Trump just eight days into his presidency. Trump’s order carries out more or less everything contained in the DRAIN the SWAMP Act, though of course does so via the executive branch rather than the legislative branch.

Most recent status: After being introduced, DeFazio’s bill was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. The following month, it was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. There has been no action on the bill since.

H.R. 796

Title: Drain the Swamp Act of 2017

Sponsor: Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL)

Two cosponsors have signed on: Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) and Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT). Unlike the DRAIN the SWAMP Act (H.R. 484), the Drain the Swamp Act of 2017 (H.R. 796) is being sponsored by three congressmen who almost always vote with Trump (each of their Trump Agreement Scores are in the low 90s).

Introduced: February 1, 2017

Summary: This is a bill that significantly expands upon the earlier legislative appeal to drain the swamp, H.R. 484. Indeed, by coming after President Trump’s executive order, it needed to offer some kind of tweak to what had by this point been established. And it does — DeSantis’ bill attempts to enlarge the scope of federal workers barred from lobbying for five years after leaving their posts.

H.R. 484 — the DRAIN the SWAMP Act — only had in view executive branch staff and appointees. Trump’s executive order also limited its scope to his own branch. DeSantis’ bill, however, extends the five-year ban for members of Congress and their staff. In addition to expanding the ban to cover the legislative branch, passage of H.R. 796 would give the ban greater durability, given that federal statutes are not as vulnerable to repeal as executive orders.

The bill also contains a couple of key refinements. It enlarges the definition of “lobbying” to include “consulting and advising,” and enlarges the definition of “lobbyist” to include a former federal employee or official who spends at least 10 percent of his or her time lobbying for a single client in a three-month period.

Most recent status: Upon being introduced, the Drain the Swamp Act of 2017 was immediately referred to two committees: the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on House Administration. A month later, the Judiciary committee referred it to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. There has been no action on it since March.

H.R. 826

Title: Drain the Swamp Act of 2017

Same name alert! Christened with the same political slogan, H.R. 826 tried to outmuscle H.R. 796 by coming out the very next day. But doesn’t it know that there’s only so much swamp to drain!

Actually, these titles are shorter, snappier versions for the public’s benefit and for ease of reference. The real titles are always long and unique. For instance, H.R. 826’s full title is: “To require the head of each executive agency to relocate such agency outside of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and for other purposes.” If that doesn’t seem like much of a title, remember that these are bills, not novels.

Sponsor: Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH)

The bill’s co-sponsors are Reps. Ted Budd (R-NC), Todd Rokita (R-IN), and Glenn Thompson (R-PA). You might remember Rokita as the co-sponsor of H.R. 796 — maybe he didn’t remember which one he liked and slapped his endorsement on both! Another interesting factor here: Thompson signed on as a co-sponsor in October, making it the most recent action so far showcased by a fairly large margin. At nearly 97 percent, Thompson also has the highest Trump Agreement Score of all the legislators profiled thus far.

Introduced: February 2, 2017

Summary: H.R. 826 is a significant departure from the past two. What it proposes is highly interesting: moving the headquarters of executive agencies to locations outside of Washington, D.C. by 2023.

How does the bill ensure that the new HQs function as actual rather than nominal centers of action? After all, it’s easy to foresee compliance while unofficially maintaining D.C. as the real seat of departmental power. Yet the bill counteracts this by allowing no more than 10 percent of agency employees to reside in the nation’s capital.

Most recent status: Upon being introduced, the bill was immediately referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This is the committee most closely linked to the project of draining the swamp. Since early February, however, no action has been taken other than, again, Thompson signing on in mid-October.

H.R. 2494

Title: Drain the Swamp and the President’s Assets Act

Sponsor: Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY)

There are two co-sponsors: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA). All three congressmen have a Trump Agreement Score that barely registers in the double digits.

Introduced: May 17, 2017

Summary: H.R. 2494 proposes to amend a prior law called the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. Specifically, it would require the president to place any financial “conflicts of interest” into a blind trust.

During the 2016 election, there were calls for Donald Trump to place his considerable assets into a blind trust, thus dissolving any conflicts of interest. In early February, a report in the New York Times read:

Since his election, there have been widespread calls for Mr. Trump to sell his assets and put the proceeds in a blind trust. He has resisted those calls, stressing that the president has no legal obligation to do so.

H.R. 2494 would supply that legal obligation. The bill’s language explicitly provides for impeachment should the obligation be flouted.

Most recent status: Upon being introduced, the bill was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. There has been no action since.

H.R. 4014

Title: DRAIN the Swamp Act of 2017

Notice that, for this bill, only the “DRAIN” part stands for something. The fuller title is: Determining if Regulatory Actions are in the Interest of the Nation or the Swamp.

Sponsor: Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI)

This bill has eight co-sponsors, by far the most of any “Drain the Swamp” legislation out there. The representatives are: John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR), Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Peter Welch (D-VT), Steve Cohen (D-TN), and Julia Brownley (D-CA). The first name on that list, John Conyers, is obviously no longer in play, having unceremoniously resigned in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. The second name on that list, Peter DeFazio, should ring a bell: he’s the sponsor of H.R. 484, the very first “Drain the Swamp” bill we profiled. None of the bill’s sponsors vote with Trump more than a quarter of the time.

Introduced: October 11, 2017

Summary: H.R. 4014 would require agencies to report whether regulatory decisions will financially benefit Trump or senior White House officials. The bill only has in view major regulatory actions: rules that impact the economy to the tune of $100 million or more, or rules that trigger a huge increase in costs for consumers. These rules would not be able to go into effect until the Government Accountability Office receives the aforementioned report. This bill principly takes aim at Trump’s perceived penchant for flouting norms regarding conflicts of interest.

Most recent status: The bill was immediately referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. A week later, it was sent to the Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial And Antitrust Law.

Final verdict: none of the bills stand a good chance of getting passed. But that may not matter. Those familiar with the performative function of legislation will notice that some of these bills are flat out unrealistic. Of course, if bills are sometimes used as political props, as symbolic gestures to utilize during re-election campaigns or for fundraising purposes, then they may have value for their sponsors beyond their legislative viability.

Was the swamp drained in 2017? Not by a long shot. But we sure came up with some snappy bill titles!



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