Save the Swamp

By Michael A. Smith of Emporia State University

The Trump Administration’s recent reversal on immigration policy regarding children has gotten me to thinking. What exactly does it mean to “drain the swamp?”

First, let me share a bit of background about the current situation. In 1997, a court ruling known as The Flores Settlement Agreement (Flores) set forth standards for the conditions in which children must be held, when in detention. The same standards were not set for adults. As a result, the most cost-effective way for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to comply was to release undocumented immigrant parents (or just one parent) with their children, with an order to appear at a specific court date. Some show up for the court dates, others do not. Trump supporters derided this policy as “catch and release” and instead attempted to put in place a new policy that such undocumented immigrants would be detained until their court date. The problem is, few facilities which meet the Flores standards can accommodate whole families, so ICE began separating the children from their parents, producing heartbreaking smartphone videos, and a grassroots movement to overturn the policy. To construct detention facilities for entire families meeting the Flores standards would cost an estimated $300 million and take time, neither of which are immediately available. There are also a lot of questions about the integrity of the contractors that bid to build and operate the facilities—oversight of private prisons and detention facilities is lacking.

Thus, acceding to public pressure to stop separating children from parents effectively means a return to the earlier policy. Currently, the implementation of the undoing is another mess. Some of the children are unaccounted-for, while others had been sent to facilities in different states from their parents. Some were being held in a converted, former department store. There even appeared to be children locked in cages. All this, because the Administration had wanted to hold the undocumented immigrants in detention until their court dates.

There are a lot of moving parts here: court rulings, campaign promises, public budgeting, public pressure, private contracting for facilities (building and management), oversight, smartphone videos and news coverage, and simple human empathy, to name a few. Oh, and it’s an election year, too.

This debacle is an excellent place to begin re-considering Trump’s oft-repeated campaign promise to “drain the swamp.”

This now-famous phrase deserves more scrutiny—Trump is effectively analogizing his plan to reform government, to the act of destroying an ecosystem. Is that really the metaphor you want, Mr. President?

Draining an actual swamp is a truly terrible idea. Swamps are teeming wetlands that support a wide variety of life. Their destruction can have ripple effects thousands of miles away—for example, by wiping out stopover sites used by migratory birds, and destroying the boundaries between fresh and salt water, just for starters. In fact, the U.S. did try to drain the swamps at least once—in the Florida Everglades, during the early and mid-twentieth century. Swamps were drained to make way for railroads, then housing developments and hotels, and later freeways. Water was diverted, while agricultural chemicals polluted what was left.

The result was unmitigated disaster. Species were driven to extinction, while human beings settled and built homes in natural-disaster prone areas. Some species reproduced out of control when their natural predators were decimated, the overflow spilling into areas populated by humans. Later, many people died and property was destroyed on developments in flood-prone areas, then rebuilt at great cost to us taxpayers- right in the path of still more disaster. Displaced from their homes, alligators and other swamp creatures still frequently appear in populated areas, for example in swimming pools.

Today, efforts are still underway to reverse the damage. An even more expensive project has allocated hundreds of millions of tax dollars to un-do the mess: trying, as best they can, to return the wilderness to this once-thriving area. Nonprofits are helping, too. At least in some places, the swamp is finally being un-drained, but there is still work to do. Florida, along with other states, still encourages and even subsidizes development in ecologically sensitive, disaster-prone areas such as coastline and floodplains, disrupting wildlife, endangering lives, and putting the taxpayers on the hook for major rebuilding expenses.

In short, draining the swamp was nothing less than a human-made disaster, the efforts to restore it cost a fortune—and still, it will still never quite be the same. The same is true of Trump’s metaphor. A key lesson of the immigrant children debacle is that “draining the swamp” of the federal government is a horrible idea.

While the metaphor is novel, Trump’s idea is not. Generations of politicians have sought office by promising to “clean up the mess” in Washington, the state capital, or city hall. The Coen Brothers’ popular movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? features a challenger candidate running for Governor of Mississippi by promising to “Clean Up for the Little Man,” complete with Vaudeville-style theatrics. (Spoiler alert: In the end, the reformer turns out to be more corrupt than the incumbent he is challenging.)

Like a real swamp, a government in a pluralistic democracy is a complicated ecosystem teeming with life. From court rulings to interest groups, election cycles to news cycles, international agreements to Gross Domestic Product, and lobbyists to lawyers, few public policy problems have easy answers. As in the case of the children, changing just one aspect of policy means changing a whole chain of interconnecting parts. Domino effects abound. Simply ending the cruel practice of separating children from parents means ending Trump’s policy initiative altogether, at least for now. There are simply too many things which affect other things which affect other things, and so on. Changing one thing—for example, the separation of children–undoes a whole policy. Public policy, like a swap, is an ecosystem.

It takes a lot of full-time professionals to oversee such a complicated government, but too often, there are not many to be found. This is the point made by John J. DiIulio, Jr. in his 2014 book Bring Back the Bureaucrats. DiIulio, a Democrat who was director of faith-based initiatives in the George W. Bush Administration, shows that federal spending has grown exponentially since the Kennedy Administration, but the federal workforce has not. Instead, the federal government has expanded its scope via entitlement payments to individuals, along with grants to for-profits, nonprofits, and state and local governments. DiIulio thinks there are far too few civil-service federal employees overseeing what is done with all this money and power, and he calls our current system “Leviathan by Proxy.” He ends by calling for an expansion of the civil-service workforce, arguing that more oversight will cost far less than one may think, and the end result of increased accountability will in fact save taxpayers’ money—a lot of it. The lax oversight of for-profit detention facilities is an excellent example, which is currently in the news.

Having more government professionals means that we can study the swamp before we go trying to drain it.

Better staffing, more professionalism, and elected officials who consult with and listen to the civil service workers we do have, can help prevent disasters like the recent one involving the immigrant children. Instead, the policy was thrown together in the same spirit as those campaign promises to “clean up the mess in Washington”—the simplistic idea that the current politicians and civil-service workers are too stupid, corrupt, or lazy to make common sense changes that will simplify and change policy. In reality, they are too smart to do this. Full-time government professionals realize that the enormous interdependence of public policies means that careful review and study of the costs and benefits of policy change are needed before seemingly-simple reforms are put in place. It would not hurt to have a few political science- and economics-trained professionals on staff to analyze the impact of things like unintended consequences, substitution effects, and ripple effects before putting these policy changes into effect. It also wouldn’t hurt to take a look at court rulings and even the Constitution itself before issuing orders.

Of course, when Trump says “drain the swamp,” he means to end a corrupt system of lawyers, lobbyists, and influence peddlers who have too much influence by comparing them to the alligators, snakes, and other reptiles that live in the swamp. No standup comedian could pass up the opportunity to point out the unfairness. Predatory alligators and snakes are just fulfilling their role in the food chain, after all—they hardly deserve to be compared to the likes of Washington lawyers and lobbyists!

Yet on a serious note, this summer’s events are a powerful reminder of the complexity and interconnectedness of policy. This is a fine time to revisit the swamp metaphor. Just as destroying an ecosystem in real life is an ecological disaster that disrupts or ends plant, animal, and human life, so draining a swamp is also a terrible way to go about governing. The diversity, complexity, and interconnectedness of governing life is as important as it is in a wetland. With actual swamps, it is time to stop the drainage. Instead, let’s hire some more wildlife biologists and park rangers and implement their recommendations. Likewise, with the metaphor, more professionals trained in political science and related disciplines working in the civil service can help show how even one seemingly small change can have a far greater impact on human lives than we ever imagined—and hopefully, next time the warnings will come sooner.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

 

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