The U.S. Senate Is
the Heart of the Problem

Donald Trump was elected in 2016 on a platform that, broadly, called for draining “the swamp.” The definition of swamp, for the most part, was left to the listener, but generally, it was assumed to represent the established interests that dictated federal policy toward the ends of a few, and away from the benefit of the country.

This week, the depth, breadth, and scope of the swamp made itself clear. 

It started with the unraveling of the case against former national security advisor Michael Flynn. The FBI initially had accused Flynn of violating the Logan Act—an 18th-century statute that has never successfully been used to prosecute anyone, not in the least because of its dubious constitutionality. Ultimately, Flynn was charged with lying to federal agents—a process crime but hardly treason.

This week, it was revealed that members of the Obama Administration, many of whom had no real role in counterintelligence operations, repeatedly unmasked (that is, requested their identities and activities from intelligence gathering sources) Trump’s incoming staff—including Flynn.

This is damning for at least two reasons. First, the very day former Vice President Joe Biden, and others, received this classified intelligence, it was leaked to the press—a violation of both the law and Flynn’s Fourth Amendment rights. And second, it gives further credence to the claim that Flynn was railroaded by the FBI into a guilty plea so the agency could continue their Russian collusion investigation into the Trump campaign—despite having basically no evidence to support it. 

This is hardly a one-off for the Obama Administration, whose director of national intelligence lied to Congress about spying on American citizens. That was before John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, spied on Senate staff and broke into their computer files. And, of course, Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general, used the Espionage Act to surveil journalists from Fox News and the Associated Press. And let’s not forget the time they eavesdropped on the phone calls of members of Congress.

It has also become clear how the Obama FBI abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to spy on the Trump campaign, altering evidence, and repeatedly lying to the FISA court to obtain illegal warrants.

It’s transparency—and the attendant accountability—that swamp dwellers fear the most.

It’s part of the reason that, when FISA was reauthorized in the Senate this week, it was done with the inclusion of moderate reforms. The reforms were largely due to the efforts of Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) who relentlessly has been doing the spadework to fix the nation’s spy powers since last leading the efforts in 2015. Thanks to Lee and his collaborators, the FISA court will now have at least a measure of accountability and transparency.

But there is still work to do. An amendment to forbid the FISA court from authorizing surveillance of American citizens (thus forcing the National Security Agency and the FBI to go through the traditional courts to get a warrant) from Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) failed. So, too, did an amendment from Senators Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to require a warrant before allowing the NSA to snoop through the browser and search history of individual Americans.

One of the senators who voted against requiring a warrant for internet-snooping, ironically, was served with one of his own just a day later. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) had his cell phone seized by the FBI as they continue to investigate allegations that the senator profited from classified information regarding the coronavirus, making several stock trades following an intelligence briefing that netted him up to $1.7 million. His brother-in-law, working at the federal National Mediation Board, made similar trades.

The swamp? It really is as vast and wide as you think.

The Interests

But it doesn’t just operate in the shadows. In fact, there is an element of the swamp that is quite overt: what former House Speaker Sam Rayburn called “The Interests.” And those Interests claw at anything that goes against the conventional narrative. That narrative is, of course, set by the nomenklatura in D.C.

This was also on display this week in just the latest attempt to shut down debate on a question that the D.C. interests oppose—but that resonates broadly outside of the Beltway.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) followed up on his case against the World Trade Organization by introducing a resolution to withdraw from the multinational trading body. 

Hawley’s argument basically distills to this: trade is good—particularly bilateral trade, where the United States works out agreements with individual countries. But multilateral trade agreements and trading bodies, on the other hand, harm U.S. interests, our workers, and our sovereignty, because they are too easily captured by mega-corporate interests, and our economic adversaries—particularly China.

As former Senator Jim DeMint said recently,

The WTO, like so many other entities corrupted by Chinese and global corporate influences, governs international trade like little dictators. This isn’t free trade as Americans understand it; it’s just corruption and cronyism.

Americans intrinsically understand this. It’s why job losses and the trade deficit remain key concerns in opinion polls regarding China.

But you know who doesn’t understand this? Or, more cynically, does understand it, but doesn’t care? The Senate. 

Nearly as soon as Hawley introduced his resolution under a mechanism designed to bring it to the Senate floor automatically, the powers-that-be brought it to a halt. Hawley’s office was told that the Senate’s parliamentarians—the smartest staffers in the Senate—uncharacteristically made a mistake and gave Hawley the wrong information, rendering his efforts moot. Oops! Too bad. No vote for you. 

Sadly, this is not unique. Similar moves were made in the House against Representative Thomas Massie’s (R-Ky.) efforts to force a resolution of disapproval vote against the war in Yemen. The Interests protect nothing as fiercely as their right to engage in endless war, unconstrained by Congress.

It’s not necessarily the outcome of these votes that scares the establishment forces in Congress. They know they can beat them. Rather, it’s the debate and the fact of the vote itself. Votes are clarifying. They create a record. They tell you what your elected representatives really think when pressed to take a stand. 

And it’s that kind of transparency—and the attendant accountability—that swamp dwellers fear the most.

In the annals of representative government, it was a bad week for Americans. We’ve been lied to, told to mind our betters because we “just don’t understand how trade works,” and had our rights manipulated by a government intent on spying on us. 

But it was a bad week for the swamp, too, whose motives and moves were on display for an increasingly disillusioned public. If you’re going to drain the swamp, you have to know where to pull the plug. That, at least, is becoming a bit easier to see.

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About Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and Senior Advisor to the Internet Accountability Project. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.

Photo: Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post via Getty Images

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