To effectively drain the swamp in Olympia and Washington, D.C., lawmakers must take steps to slow the revolving door between elected offices and lobbying positions.
At both the state and national level, the prevalence of lawmakers seamlessly becoming lobbyists on behalf of major corporations undermines government transparency and leads to questions about the integrity of the legislative process. The issue has been the topic of much recent discussion, but that discussion should be followed by action from the Legislature and Congress.
Last week, state Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, announced that he was resigning from office to take a job as Amazon’s director of public policy for Washington. As a lobbyist, he will use his connections and his knowledge of Olympia’s inner workings to advocate for policy that benefits the company.
For Palumbo and for Amazon, the reasons behind the move are clear. Corporations understandably hire people who can provide them with an advantage in gaining access and influence in the Legislative Building; individuals understandably are drawn to employment with large, successful companies.
But there are questions about whether such a relationship benefits the people of Washington. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sought legislation this year that would establish a one-year “cooling off” period before state officials could work as lobbyists after leaving government; the legislation did not advance out of committee.
Kathy Sakahara, a volunteer lobbyist with the League of Women Voters, testified: “We know that a major obstacle to people getting involved in government and voting is the perception that the people with the money run everything.” Allowing elected officials to immediately move into lobbying positions reinforces that perception and enhances the belief that government is a swamp and is unnavigable for the average citizen.
That belief is even more pronounced when it comes to Washington, D.C. Consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen reports that of 44 members of Congress who either retired or were voted out of office last year, 26 of them went on to take jobs at lobbying firms. Most have been hired as consultants or advisers — positions that allow them to guide lobbyists without having to register as a lobbyist themselves.
This has led to a remarkable coalition in Congress. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a Democratic Socialist, and conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas agreed — over Twitter — to work together on a bill banning former congressional members from working as lobbyists. Whether legislation comes up remains to be seen, but it points out the urgency of the issue.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the U.S. House this year passed the For the People Act, designed to reduce the influence of big money in politics and strengthen ethics rules for public servants. The bill passed on a straight party-line vote, supported by Democrats, but it might not receive attention in the Republican-controlled Senate.
As a candidate, President Donald Trump would often refer to the “swamp” of Washington, D.C., in calling for ethics and lobbying reforms; since then, he has watered down the phrase to mean anything to which he objects. Given its original meaning, draining that swamp should retain some attraction for the American people.
Lawmakers at both the state and national level should work to avoid the perception that government revolves around a quid pro quo system rather than one that works for the benefit of the public.