'Drain The Swamp'? Hardly. Washington Appears More Stuck In The Muck Than Ever "We have dysfunction in Congress; we have dysfunction, I think, in the presidency; and we have dysfunction in the lobbying community" — reform lobbyist Meredith McGehee
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'Drain The Swamp'? Hardly. Washington Appears More Stuck In The Muck Than Ever

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'Drain The Swamp'? Hardly. Washington Appears More Stuck In The Muck Than Ever

'Drain The Swamp'? Hardly. Washington Appears More Stuck In The Muck Than Ever

'Drain The Swamp'? Hardly. Washington Appears More Stuck In The Muck Than Ever

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/563842445/564443899" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

President Trump gives a thumbs up at the Republican National Convention, as then-Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort stands behind him and next to Ivanka Trump. Evan Vucci/AP hide caption

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Evan Vucci/AP

President Trump gives a thumbs up at the Republican National Convention, as then-Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort stands behind him and next to Ivanka Trump.

Evan Vucci/AP

Washington used to operate one scandal at a time.

Not anymore. Here are just some of the scandals currently brewing:

  • The indictment of President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates, in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.
  • A guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a foreign-policy adviser on the campaign. He admitted that he lied to Mueller's investigators about his efforts to connect with Russian government officials.
  • Fatal damage to the Podesta Group, one of Washington's top lobby firms, which appears, unnamed, in the Manafort-Gates indictment. Democratic lobbyist and fundraiser Tony Podesta — who co-founded the firm 29 years ago with his brother, Democratic strategist John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman — announced he was leaving hours after the indictment became public.
  • The first criminal corruption trial in nearly a decade against a U.S. senator, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is now awaiting a jury's verdict.

Amid Capitol Hill's frenetic pursuit of campaign money, a moment of candor by Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who said of the tax overhaul bill, "My donors are basically saying, 'Get it done or don't ever call me again.' "

It's all a far cry from Trump's days on the campaign trail, when he regularly vowed to clean things up.

"If I am elected president, we are going to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.," Trump said at a campaign event in Chesapeake, Va., last October.

Actually, the swamp is still pretty swampy.

And some denizens say it's getting worse.

People seem to think that "anything goes, and that it's dumb to follow the rules," longtime lobbyist Nick Allard told NPR.

Allard, now the dean of Brooklyn Law School, called the D.C. ethical climate "worse than any I've experienced in my three, almost four decades working in this field. People who are complying by the rules are competing for results against those that are cutting corners."

The indictment of Manafort and Gates spotlights one small slice of modern Washington. Among the charges, they are accused of failing to disclose lobbying activities for foreign clients, a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

The indictment says Manafort and Gates did political consulting work, and then Washington lobbying, for Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych, his political party and, ultimately, the Ukrainian government when Yanukovych became president.

The indictment says they expanded the effort by hiring the Podesta Group and another lobby firm to work for the Ukrainian clients through a nonprofit in Belgium.

It was "a multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign," according to the indictment.

But none of the lobbyists – not Manafort, Gates, Podesta or employees of the other lobby firm – registered under FARA. Instead, there was a spate of retroactive registrations earlier this year.

The law requires substantial disclosures, even detailed lists of lawmakers and staffers contacted by the lobbyists, and violating FARA is a felony. But enforcement is rare. Before Manafort and Gates were indicted, the Justice Department had brought felony charges just seven times in the past half-century.

"The question that arises out of the Manafort situation is, is the period of complacency coming to an end?" said law professor Steve Vladeck, co-author of the Just Security blog. "Or is this just a special case brought by a special counsel."

The day after Manafort and Gates were indicted, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced a bill to make FARA more stringent, more far-reaching and easier to enforce.

The Mueller investigation "just kind of puts a gray cloud around the whole lobbying-special interest community in D.C.," said David Rehr, a lobbyist-turned-professor at George Mason University law school. "It doesn't drain the swamp. But I think now people are just more nervous, and they're actually seeing a prosecutor going after someone."

Still, law enforcement would be just one step in a swamp-draining effort. Meredith McGehee, a veteran lobbyist on political reform issues, said Washington isn't working right.

"We have dysfunction in Congress; we have dysfunction, I think, in the presidency; and we have dysfunction in the lobbying community," she told NPR. "But that's because the system, as we currently have it structured, rewards dysfunction."

She said the way Americans can change that rewards system is to get engaged with politics.