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EDITORIAL: How to drain the swamp

President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp.” Looks like his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, never got the message.

News broke last week that companies paid Mr. Cohen millions of dollars for counsel on a host of issues he has little known expertise on. AT&T gave him $600,000 as it sought the government’s OK to take over Time Warner. A drug company, Novartis AG, paid him $1.2 million for health care advice. Columbus Nova handed over $500,000 for assistance on real estate.

Either Mr. Cohen is a 21st-century Renaissance man with expertise on a wide variety of complex subjects, or he knew Mr. Trump.

That’s easy. This is a classic case of influence peddling, not part of a Russian plot to influence the election. Likewise, attempts to tie this to the hush money Mr. Cohen paid Stormy Daniels look extremely far-fetched.

The buying and selling of influence happens — albeit usually with a more respectable veneer — every day in Washington, D.C. It’s why former elected officials so often remain in D.C. Lobbying their former colleagues is a lucrative business. Knowing the right people, like Mr. Cohen did, can make you rich. That’s not illegal, but it is the type of swampy behavior that Mr. Trump pledged to eliminate.

But the fundamental problem isn’t Mr. Cohen, although his antics belie Mr. Trump’s claim that he hires only the best people. Rather, the problem is that the federal government has too much power. These companies thought it made good business sense to shower a Trump associate with cash. Why? Because the benefits they could have reaped were worth far more than the money they spent.

Companies don’t engage in lobbying because it’s fun. They do it to either push laws that hurt their competitors or to protect themselves from laws that would do them harm — or both. That’s the very definition of crony capitalism, and while it can make the winners rich, it’s a losing game for the average citizen.

Reduce the power of the federal government to pick winners and losers in the economy, and Michael Cohen doesn’t get rich just for knowing Mr. Trump. If you want to stop lobbyists, give them less to lobby for. Confine the federal government within its constitutional boundaries and the issue of lobbying and money in politics becomes much less acute. In fact, the progressive dream of eliminating money from politics is directly at odds with the big-government progressive agenda.

The problem with the “swamp” isn’t primarily the character of the people involved, but that the swamp exists in the first place. Reduce the size and scope of government, and the lobbyists and the companies that employ them will have fewer reasons to occupy those expensive digs on K Street in the first place.

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