President-Elect Donald J. Trump made a lot of promises during his campaign, one of the most notable being his pledge to "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C., a pledge based on the popular misconception that the nation's capital is located on the site of a former swamp.
In fact, the District of Columbia may be marshy, but it was never technically a swamp. And it's not a swamp today either -- it's more like a beehive that has been whacked with a big stick. The place, in a word, is buzzing.
It's been eight years since there was a change in administrations and a change in ruling party to boot. Leaving politics aside for a moment, this is a bonanza for Realtors who will soon have hundreds of upscale homes to list as dejected Democrats leave town and hundreds of jubilant incoming Republicans replace them.
(Realtors prefer for the successful candidate to be from New York, California, or some other high cost-of-living state; they tend to be willing and able to spend more on housing. The first and, as it turns out last, Clinton Administration was not popular with the housing trade).
But forget Realtors, the business of Washington is lobbying. There are all kinds of lobbyists. Some represent charitable causes and what used to be called "do-gooder" groups, but the high-powered ones represent business interests. Although they tend to be vilified by candidates and everyone else, lobbyists are necessary since, without them, businesses and institutions would soon be hopelessly hamstrung by regulations, at least in theory.
In their simplest form, lobbyists provide information to lawmakers, helping them understand what effect a given piece of legislation would have on a specific industry. When necessary, gentle persuasion may be employed. (Full disclosure: I worked for several years with what we call "government affairs firms" in D.C. but have no current ties with any special interest groups or lobbying firms).
A lengthy list
Given all this, it was not surprising today when I came across a list of the lobbyists who were heading up various elements of the Trump transition team. There are lobbyists representing Altria, Coca-Cola, General Elecric, Dow Chemical, and Duke Energy, among many others, in charge of finding top appointees for Homeland Security, Labor, Energy, Interior, Agriculture, Defense, and the list goes on.
Shocking? Not really. Since top Obama appointees will soon turn in their resignations and leave, new appointees must be identified, vetted, grilled, and examined.
It's a lengthy process and one that must be carried out largely by the President-Elect's staff. He is not yet the President, after all, and does not command the full resources of the executive branch, so it's necessary to find volunteers who know the territory, are accustomed to working long hours, and looking out for the arcane details that will bite you if you don't see them coming -- lobbyists, in other words.
Many lobbyists are former government officials who worked on the Hill or in one of the agencies. Their bosses tend to be former officeholders -- Senators and Representatives who are living the heavenly (and lucrative) afterlife that follows a few terms in office.
In Trump's case, he is especially dependent on Washington insiders. He, after all, is a businessman, not a politician. He has never held elective office, doesn't have many close contacts in D.C., and his swamp-draining campaign promises (and those leaked videotapes) basically made him a pariah in the political world.
A jarring transition
"He couldn't even staff the campaign because no one wanted to be associated with him," said one Trump aide quoted in a Politico newsletter. "It's different now but there's going to have to be a lot of forgive and forget."
Working in Trump's favor -- lobbying firms are scrambling to demonstrate to their clients that they wield influence with the incoming Trumpians and are desperate to volunteer to help the transition move smoothly.
The transition from Political Outsider to President-Elect can be jarring. One minute you're railing against special interests, greedy capitalists, and featherbedding bureaucrats. The next, you're the biggest insider of all, your desk the one where the buck stops.
Love him or hate him, Trump faces a difficult few months. He won't have time to be draining any swamps. And while struggling to assemble his team, Trump will know that across town, plans are being made by rivals already hard at work on the 2018 election. His oversights today will be the political fodder of tomorrow's campaigns.