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Mr. President, drain the swamp of its corruption: Paul Heise

Posted 11/7/17

“Drain the Swamp,” along with “Build the Wall” and “Lock Her Up,” were and still are the battle cry of the Donald Trump political rallies. 

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Mr. President, drain the swamp of its corruption: Paul Heise


“Drain the Swamp,” along with “Build the Wall” and “Lock Her Up,” were and still are the battle cry of the Donald Trump political rallies. 

Use of the phrase “Drain the Swamp” goes back to the early 20th century and has been repeated by Pat Buchanan, Nancy Pelosi and Ronald Reagan. It is commonly used as a call to action by those who are not in political power. It is neither partisan nor well-defined. It is the political promise that, should the outs achieve power, they will clean up the reigning opposition’s corruption.

In its broadest sense, the swamp can be the whole system. In its earliest use, socialists meant capitalism when they condemned the swamp. Trump has used it in its narrower sense to mean reinstating ethics in government. One has to note, however, that draining a physical swamp is now usually seen as a bad idea. 

Wetlands are now recognized as valuable ecosystems which deserve to be legally protected. But swamps still have a bad reputation as a breeding place for mosquitoes and malaria. So it is still a useful metaphor for politics that are stagnant, corrupt and in need of drainage. Think of a physical swamp as a place of stagnant water, rot, and unproductive, dangerous animals, such as alligators or crocodiles and poisonous snakes. The concept of a swamp as a place of political rot is particularly appropriate in a democracy where power and people are constantly shifting.

The political swamp can be thought of as a layer of power that outlasts administration changes. Such power centers are maintained by political appointees who can be judges, institutions such as the Foreign Service or the uniformed services, regulatory agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission, the national security agencies or certainly the officer corps. 

All of these agencies are staffed with competent, civil service professionals, including massive numbers of lawyers, economists and “analysts.” These civil servants are implementers and not policy-maker appointees. The power the civil service holdovers exercise is not usually a drag on the implementation of a new regime. This is particularly true in the case of a transformational president such as Trump. The Trump agenda is so foreign that most of these civil service holdovers have got to be uncomfortable with what they are expected to do and be in this administration.

The structure and operation of the swamp is of vital importance to those  we will call “swamp people.” Bureaucrats are probably the least of these inhabitants of the swamp. Every time the administration changes, the swamp people scramble for position and power. Every law that is written was advocated by a gathering of forces that include legislators, private corporations, financial interests and lawyer-lobbyists. 

All of the swamp people know their way around the swamp and they hang on from administration to administration. People are well aware of the status of government jobs, the pay level of various law firms and influence peddlers in the hierarchy that governs it all. Even before the election is finalized, jobs have been parceled out. This is of course not the case in the Trump administration. Usually, it is the same people seizing the same jobs. The swamp is really a very highly ordered place that understands self-preservation. The swamp is not easily drained. But Trump has the chance because he is not beholden to the swamp people for his election. He really did come into the presidency pretty much free of obligation to maintain the rights and privileges of the swamp. 

Trump said all the right things, the things people wanted to hear, but he has governed so far as though the swamp people were his only constituents. He came into office with the power to break all the rules that the swamp had put up but he apparently did not have the knowledge, character or experience necessary to respond to that opportunity. Trump embraced the phrase “Drain the Swamp” but specifically rejected the idea behind it.

A political swamp can be drained. Then the people get their government back as they did under Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. These three presidents came to the presidency without the weight of obligations to the swamp people. Other presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — came to the presidency with little or no debt to the swamp people. But something got in the way and they chose to join the swamp rather than fight it. Some of them mistook the swamp for the government.

It takes a special kind of president and a special set of political and economic conditions to be able to drain the swamp. Theodore Roosevelt was an accidental president who drained the Gilded Age swamp of gross income inequality and recurring recessions. Truman, also an accidental president, drained the swamp of wartime controls. Eisenhower drained the swamp that was forming around the opening of the Cold War and the restructuring of the global economy.

The economy is stagnant and political corruption is widespread. Trump has the opportunity to break through the crust of power politics and drain the swamp. 

Mr. President, drain that swamp.

Paul A. Heise, of Mount Gretna, is a professor emeritus of economics at Lebanon Valley College and a former economist for the federal government.