WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump may have promised to “drain the swamp" in Washington. But while he has tightened some restrictions on lobbyists, government watchdogs say he has loosened others.
For the moment, lobbying experts noted, Trump has done nothing about a gaping loophole that has plagued past attempts to check the influence of special interests on government by preventing "shadow lobbying."
Trump, with an avalanche of executive orders he’s issued since taking office, on Saturday ordered new limits that expand how long members of his administration must wait after leaving office before they can lobby their old co-workers.
Instead of the two-year ban under the Obama administration, Trump ordered a five-year ban.
The move is meant to slow the revolving door of top officials who leave government only to turn around and use their connections as high-priced lobbyists.
He even joked about his aides as he signed the order saying, "Most of the people standing behind me will not be able to go to work."
But nonpartisan watchdog groups, such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Trump left plenty for ex-officials to do.
His executive order may have a longer ban on lobbying, but it changes what “lobbying” means.
Ex-officials can now lobby the administration over regulations - a big business in Washington, D.C., and something prohibited under Obama’s ethics regulations, the group said.
Drawing more criticism is the fact that Trump's order leaves untouched a major loophole that allows "shadow lobbyists," despite Trump’s promises to close it.
The law now classifies someone who spends at least 20 percent of their time lobbying for a single client as a lobbyist.
Advocates who spread around their time to a number of clients, without hitting the threshold for any one, do not have to comply with lobbying laws, said Chris MacKenzie, acting program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group's Democracy Campaign.
Former officials who use that tactic can skirt the new five-year ban on lobbying, as well.
Trump’s executive order also maintained Obama's ban on registered lobbyists who join the administration from working on the same issues.
Trump, though, lifted an Obama-era rule that kept lobbyists from even going to work for a government agency they had lobbied.
Again, MacKenzie said it’s easy for lobbyists to evade the rules that exist by taking steps to avoid being labeled a lobbyist.
In fact, he and other watchdogs say the new rules could force more lobbyists to work in the shadows as unregulated advocates.
That’s what happened when Obama passed his rules, according to the Public Interest Research Group.
Only 11,143 lobbyists were registered last year - the fewest in 18 years - the group reported Monday, citing research by the Center for Responsive Politics. That was down from 14,153 registered lobbyists in 2009.
“If our elected officials want to pass lobbying and ethics reform, the single-most important action they can take is to stop 'shadow lobbyists' from dodging lobbyist registration,” the group's executive director, Andre Delattre, said in a statement.
“Today’s lobbying loopholes are large enough to drive a truck through. If we don’t close them, any other ethics reforms we pass are rendered toothless,” he said.
In a five-point ethics plan unveiled last October, Trump said he would create the five-year lobbying ban, as well as a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying a federal entity, both of which were included in his executive order issued last Saturday.
However, Trump also said on the campaign trail that he would “expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisors when we all know they are lobbyists.”
The watchdog groups are split over his failure to include that point.
A White House spokeswoman did not return an inquiry asking if Trump plans further limits.
MacKenzie said he's optimistic that Trump will urge Congress to close the loophole on shadow lobbying while making good on another pledge -- to pressure Congress to enact the same reforms for itself.
Other ethics experts are more skeptical.
The co-chairmen of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -- Norman Eisen, who was Obama’s ethics counsel, and Richard Painter, who held the same post for President George W. Bush -- said in a statement “there are things to like” in Trump’s order.
But they criticized it for not closing the loophole.
The executive order is “a step back” from the Obama administration's rules, they said, and falls short of Trump's promises to “drain the swamp.”
Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, said Trump "is just skimming the surface of the swamp."
He noted Trump has not fulfilled his pledge to push Congress to enact its own five-year ban on lobbying by former employees.
Congressional leaders thus far have not made extending Trump’s new rules to themselves a priority.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, referred to a statement he made last fall noting a two-year ban on lobbying by former members of Congress that's already in place, along with a one-year ban for members of their staffs.
If Trump “has other ideas about that, then certainly we’ll listen respectfully and we’ll engage in a dialogue about that," Cornyn said.
Kery Murakami is the Washington, D.C. reporter for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Contact him at email@example.com