I know a thing or two about swamps.
Wetlands, to be specific. Those low points and dips in a watershed where the water table is near or at the surface due to decreased elevation, where runoff from the surrounding areas accumulates to be filtered of sediments and nutrients before rejoining the either surface water or underground aquifers.
The summer before 4th grade, the construction of a sewage incinerator was proposed less than a mile upstream from my parents’ farm. It was in a wetland area, though the permits filed failed to note this. Thus, my warrior mother spend three months proving to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection that it was, indeed, a wetland. I learned about hydrology, hydric soils, and hydrophytes. I learned about political action, as well, sitting in the back of meetings and hearings, digging up maps and deeds, sitting by my mother’s side while she typed letters and called bureaucrats.
Interest in wetlands followed me through high school. I wrote reports on different ecotones, joined the Envirothon team as their wetlands expert, interned for the Berks County Conservation District during my undergraduate work. Even now, I work on a farm where the majority of our grazing land is a drained swamp. The soil quality sucks. It floods when the creek crests. Reeds and shallow-rooted trees abound. Blue herons hunt frogs who croak all through the warm months.
That’s the thing about swamps: they never really go away. Damage them all you like. You’ll destroy the positive effects for the environment, but the water is only diverted.
Humankind has had an adversarial relationship with swamps through much of history, which makes sense from a superficial utilitarian perspective. Full of brier and brush, unarable land, sopping soil difficult to cross. A breeding ground for mosquitoes and diseases. So loathed were these wetlands that one of the first things early American settlers did was destroy them to be reclaimed for other purposes. The value of wetlands isn’t intrinsically visible. It’s a muddy swamp on the surface with complex ecology beneath.
It’s simple to say, “drain the swamp,” if you don’t know how the swamp works.
There’s a myth that Washington D.C. was built on a swamp. While there are six swampy areas within the city, former wetlands only compose 2% of the area within the city’s borders. However, Americans are never ones to let facts get in the way of a good story regarding their nation’s founding. Or, in this case, a good metaphor.
“Drain the Swamp” rhetoric started as early as 1903, first used by American socialists to refer to the capitalist system in their country. The term has gone through many iterations over the decades. Ronald Reagan used it to refer to big government, Nancy Pelosi to years of a Republican-run congress, and Donald Rumsfeld to terrorism. In October of 2016, the metaphor was picked up by another Donald.
“It’s time to drain the swamp in Washington D.C. That’s why I’m proposing a package of ethic reforms to make our government honest once again,” reads the beginning of Donald J. Trump’s five-point plan for ethics reform. (Let’s all pass by the claim that our government was ever honest, shall we?) He reasserted many of these points as part of his plan for his first 100 days in office after becoming President-Elect: proposing a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Congress and disallowing White House and Congressional officials from becoming lobbyists within 5 years of leaving governmental service.
Just as the literal draining of swamps was done out of ignorance of the environmental systems that lead to ecological stability, the metaphorical draining of Washington’s swamp is being proposed and supported out of ignorance for the inter-workings of a complex political system. Outsiders see the stagnant water, the algae, the mire, not understanding that all parts of a swamp have their functions, that the works is being done beneath the surface, out of sight.
His proposed term limit for Senators is twelve years, or two terms, for House lawmakers, three terms or six years. With campaigns every other year, three terms gives lawmakers little time to learn their trade. To a person who hasn’t served in any part of our political system, it may seem that if a Representative can’t accomplish anything in three terms, they won’t accomplish anything in six. This conception lacks a fundamental understanding of how our congress works.
A Representative must address the concerns of constituents, propose, read, and amend bills, form coalitions within a party while also forming allies within the opposing party, become knowledgeable on all legislative topics, while specializing information for certain committees, and run a campaign every other year. Even with a staff to read and digest white papers, sort through constituent concerns, write speeches, and facilitate communication, a tremendous amount of expertise is needed to succeed. Lessening the time a Representative spends in Washington is counterproductive to quality legislation.
Want proof? In 2010, the House of Representatives had their lowest reelection rate since 1970. Likewise, in 2006 through 2010 the Senate experienced three consecutive elections with a higher than 15% turnover, which hasn’t been seen since 1976-1980. There has been upheaval of the officials we elect to office. What has resulted is the lowest amount of legislation passed in thirty years.
Our system is inept, but it has nothing to do with the existence of the swamp, the local fauna, or even lobbyist mosquitoes, buzzing in Washington’s ears.
We’re the problem.
Just as a wetland functions by taking water polluted by sediment and nutrients, filtering out impurities, and reintroducing it to the environment, our congress is supposed to take the needs and concerns, the problems and injustices, of their constituents, work them through a complex system, and come up with solutions. The solutions may be imperfect, but they maintain a balance like a swamp, which holds water in wet times and releases it in droughts, fluctuating with the water table to adjust to needs of the environment. Swamps are floodplains, taking on water when it rains too much, letting it wash over them so the rest of the environment isn’t drowned.
We’ve been keeping the water from the wetland. What water we allow in is so polluted the swamp can’t handle it. We champion our congressmen for being obstructionist, laud them for being divisive, and don’t hold them accountable for their dysfunction.
We elect the Senators and Representatives who work in Washington. Lobbyists can have their ear for an hour, but we have the vote. We have the voice. We have the power. Limiting the amount of time an official serves in office decreases competence rather than increasing accountability. We increase accountability. We have the vote. We have the voice.
Let the water flow. Write your Senators. Meet your Representative. Tell your friends and family to do the same. Educate yourself on the issues. Take a stand. Run for office. Think. Speak. Act.
Flood the swamp or it will flood us. It’s happening now. Rivers are cresting with a populist movement, seeping into citizens lives and homes, creating creeks between neighbors. Send the water back to Washington where it belongs.
Don’t drain the swamp.
Don’t drain the swamp.