Draining the Swamp in DC & SC
By Phil Noble
Since Donald Trump was elected, the phase ‘drain the swamp’ has become media/political shorthand for all the changes that he is going to bring to politics as usual in DC. Although I didn’t vote for him, I do absolutely believe that there needs to be a lot of swamp draining in DC – and this got me to thinking about swamp draining in S.C. as well.
First, DC. The swamp draining in DC is all about the corruption of big money, lobbyist, special interest, campaign donations, etc. The DC insiders see presidents come and go but the political class is always there and represent the way Washington works. The current gridlock is at least partially due to the entrenched special interest that represent this politics as usual mentality of both Democrats and Republicans. And, the justifiable hostility towards DC really is bi-partisan as Congress has a 13% approval rating.
There is reason to believe that Trump is at least trying to bring in some new people, but what is not at all clear is if these new people have the basic competence to do the job. For example, it makes me very nervous when the woman appointed to be Secretary of Education is multi-billionaire Betsy DeVos (a Koch brothers ally) who has made a career out of funding groups that bash public education – neither she or any of her four children have ever even been to public schools. It appears that her principle, perhaps only, qualification is that she gave a lot of money to Trump’s campaign.
And, not to demean our Governor who is to be our nation’s next Ambassador to the UN, well let’s just say that when it comes to her international experience, it’s a strectch. As my 26 year old son said, “I’ve been to more countries than she has…”
But, let’s not judge Trump and his appointments too harshly just yet and let’s give them a chance and see what they do. He won the election; he will be our president and we should all want him to succeed – and that includes success with the swamp draining.
So, what about the South Carolina swamp. Well, in some ways it’s a different type of swamp but there are still plenty of the same types of alligators, snakes and other scary creatures about.
Let’s start with the similarities. Most of all, things in the S.C. Statehouse are run by the same influences as in DC – corruption, big money, lobbyists, special interest, campaign donations, etc. Obviously, the amounts of money, number of lobbyists, size of campaign donations, etc. are comparatively a whole lot smaller, but the system is still the same.
Many, perhaps most, S.C. legislators – in one way or another – make money off of their official position beyond the salary they receive. (At approximately $10,000 in salary and another $10,000 in expenses, the pay is too low which is part of the problem, but that will have to be the subject of another column.)
Setting aside the outright illegal things that some legislators may do (see the ongoing corruption investigation by Solicitor David Pascoe) many legislators legally make money from consulting contracts, legal business, retainer fees, etc. Some are hired (or family members are hired) by all sorts of special interest to do little or no work for exorbitant fees. This is pretty much the same pattern as in DC.
Campaign contributions are the same deal as well. Lobbyists work for all sorts of special interest groups that want to persuade the legislators to do their bidding – provide special tax breaks, get them contracts or in other ways look out for their special interest. In S.C., lobbyists can’t give money directly, but the ‘lobbyist principals’ or their family members can and do make contributions. This is what drives the vast majority – in some cases over 75% – of Statehouse campaign contributions. Here in S.C., in the last legislative session there were 873 registered lobbyists and with only 170 members of the S.C. House and Senate, this is more than five lobbyists for each legislator.
Of course, not all of these ‘special interest groups’ are evil and wicked; some are trying to do good things such as protect our environment, educate our children and help those with special needs. But, the problem is that these ‘good guys’ are forced to play by the same sleazy rules and when they go up against the bad guys with lots of money – well you can guess who usually wins.
But, there are also some differences between the swamps in DC and SC.
Most importantly, there is a viable two party system in Washington. On some issues, Democrats win and on some issues Republicans win. The system is at least competitive. In South Carolina, there is no effective two party system – the Republicans run everything and have done so for about a generation now.
Sure, there are some Democrats in the state House and Senate, but their numbers have been reduced to the point that they are largely irrelevant on the big issues. The Republicans control all eight statewide offices, have huge majorities in the state House and Senate, they have eight of nine members of the US Congress and both US Senators.
But, this is not to say that somehow all the Democrats are pure and all the Republicans are corrupt – far from it. When it comes to the big issues – big money, lobbyists, special interest, campaign donations, etc. – it’s pretty hard to tell one party from the other. They are both members of the same party – the Politics As Usual Incumbent Party.
Another interesting factor in the swamp draining business in South Carolina is the role of soon to be Governor Henry McMaster. The sniping has already begun as a recent S.C. Democratic Party email said, “our very own Whites-Only Country Club member-in-chief will get his chance to lead our state right back to the 1950s.”
A fervent backer of Trump from the beginning, one would think that McMaster would be firmly in the swamp drainers camp, but in South Carolina … not so much. McMaster is an insider’s insider; he’s been in one political job or another or running for some office for over 35 years.
With his rise to the Governor’s Office, one could argue that McMaster is now simply the biggest alligator in the swamp.
We’ll have to see how all this passion and fury for swamp draining turns out, both in DC and S.C. What’s not really clear now is who are the real swamp drainers and who are the real swamp monsters.
So, stay tuned folks – it will be interesting to watch.