The revolving door is the root of corruption in Washington, D.C., and President-elect Donald Trump may have just slowed it.

Trump’s pledge to bar administration officials from lobbying for five years after they leave office is his first valuable move towards unrigging the game.

The key distinction when discussing the revolving door is between those entering through the revolving door and those exiting. In other words, hiring lobbyists into an administration is one thing; administration officials cashing out to K Street is another.

President Obama made a big deal about the former. “They won’t work in my administration,” Obama said. He never came close to keeping this promise. More importantly, it was a bit of a silly promise. Hiring a former lobbyist doesn’t create a conflict of interest if the lobbyist actually severs ties with his old employer and clients.

If you hire so many lobbyists that they set the tone of the White House or a given agency or division, then you create a K Street echo chamber where K Street sensibilities dominate. But in general, hiring folks from K Street poses a minimal corruption risk.

The real risk from revolvers is the out door — not because we begrudge public servants from getting rich later on, but because it corrupts incentives for public servants if they know that industry is waiting to hire them up as a lobbyist.

William Schultz, general counsel at the Department of Health and Human Services for most of the Obama administration, just announced he is leaving — for the same K Street firm from which Obama had hired him. Schultz was a drug and hospital lobbyist at Zuckerman Spaeder up until the dawn of the Obama administration.

Then he was the top lawyer for the agency implementing Obamacare. This week he returned to Zuckerman. So the entire time he was implementing Obamacare, Schultz had a job waiting for him at a firm representing drug companies and hospitals. Do you think that didn’t weigh in the back of his mind?

Dozens of staffers and elected officials who shaped Obamacare on Capitol Hill and in the administration later cashed out to become lobbyists for insurers, drugmakers and hospitals. When Democratic health aide Yvette Fontenot joined a K Street firm, Avenue Solutions, the firm explained her value this way:

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“Fontenot recently left the Department of Health and Human Services, where she was deputy director of the Office of Health Reform. She also worked as senior policy director in the White House Office of Health Reform, where she helped to implement the Affordable Care Act.

“Fontenot has also held several positions on Capitol Hill, including as a professional staff member for the Senate Finance Committee under Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) where she helped develop the healthcare reform law.”

Fontenot’s lobbying clients include Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Momenta Pharmaceuticals.

When you look at Obama’s two major laws — Obamcare and Dodd-Frank — you see a pattern: they are large, complex laws that further intertwine the private sector with big government. More regulations, more subsidies, more mandates and endless implementation.

That’s the perfect formula for a lawmaker or aide to make himself or herself valuable to industry. Probably no individuals (or very few at least) were so conniving while crafting the laws, but the financial incentives of staffers and the shapes of the laws do line up well enough that you have to figure there was causality here, on the institutional or subconscious level.

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Trump administration staffers will feel all the same pulls — to create complexity, subsidies, regulations that increase their own value. If Trump can give his five-year cooling-off-period teeth, though, he’ll change the incentives, because his appointees won’t have lobbying jobs waiting for them.

Obama created a two-year cooling-off period, but plenty of his aides still passed through the revolving-door. Five years is far stronger, but the Obama experience shows the holes in this plan — holes Trump must patch up if he’s serious about rooting out corruption.

For one thing, Trump could use a broader definition of lobbying. And Congressional Republicans could follow suit. The conference could establish as a rule that GOP lawmakers and their staff won’t allow lobbying contacts from their former colleagues or aides who have left the Hill in the last few years. (This approach has the advantage of regulating Congress rather than lobbyists themselves.)

Obama never stopped the revolving door as he said he would. Trump won’t stop it either. But if he can extend the cooling-off period and give it teeth, he can set a new norm: that we expect our public servants, while they are in office, to serve the public.

Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner’s senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.

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