The "swamp" I know

AP
opinion
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In the months of calls to "drain the swamp," we've covered the lifeblood of our democracy in mud.

If draining the swamp means addressing the outsized influence of lobbyists and insisting upon greater transparency and accountability, I am unequivocally in. But far too often, the swamp rhetoric swallows up — and maligns — the entire federal government. Our nation deserves better than this cynical default. Indeed, the success of any presidential administration is best served by incoming political appointees who honor the critical role of government, particularly civil servants.

As a political appointee in the Department of State, some days I felt like swamp was a fair analogy — a slog through clearances, semantics and inertia slowing down real progress. But that's not the whole story. Just like a swamp, you can fly above the canopy and make assumptions about what's below, but you can't know until you're on the ground and actually in it.  

Underneath the obscurity of sweeping generalizations about big government and Washington are facts in human form that expose the myth. While there is waste and absurdity in Washington that makes for good soundbites and well-deserved reproach, the biggest part of government remains the hearts of those who show up every day to make it work better. 

Their successes are almost always anonymous, their failures almost always interpreted as emblematic of the whole. While it's easy for candidates to complain about Washington and paint a picture of a city directed by ego and driven only by their outsized paychecks, that image is as wrong as it is demoralizing.

I remember walking into my first day on the job expecting all the efficiencies and charm of a DMV. Instead, I found 50 passionate colleagues constantly sacrificing to honor their charge of promoting freedom around the world. 

Before I even had email access, I would meet a woman who'd almost lost her feet working without pay for a foreign diplomat residing in Washington. Her traffickers had punished her by locking her outside in the snow while barefoot. The sandals she wore to the office laid bare a cruelty that, in a wicked irony, often evades consequence because mistreatment of domestic workers is considered covered by diplomatic immunity under the Geneva Convention. You know, the treaty that forbids torture. 

Her story was new to me, but familiar and worn to the civil servants in the room. For years, they had pushed to secure her back wages and establish programs to protect domestic workers serving in diplomatic households. Each year they surfaced these proposals, but politics got in the way and nothing happened.

As they sat down to once again refine their appeal, I marveled at their commitment to continue fighting the same fight — and their belief that they would succeed. As sure as the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, one embodiment of patriotism is continuing to push government to honor its values, even when the defeats are predictable and the noes seem absolute. 

This is what our civil servants do every day.

I've been in the swamp they speak of, and it's a group of underpaid civil servants who pass the hat for victims in Ghana and pass the buck never.

This bog is teaming with overqualification and missed vacations and the choice to put the world's children ahead of one's own — but also an all-too-often thankless, sweeping impact.

Within my first month on the job, bonded laborers in Pakistan summoned the courage to petition the government for their freedom. Their landlords retaliated by kidnapping their families at gunpoint. I'll never forget the manifest; the hostages were infants alongside men in their 80s. I had a list of 87 people depending on me, a deep commitment to doing right by them and no relevant experience whatsoever.  

But the department did. Together, we worked to engage the relationships it had spent years cultivating and secured the hostages' release. While I received an award for my role, it was the foreign and civil service officers who saved those lives.

I also had the honor to work on what would become former President Barack Obama's executive order to prevent human trafficking. After months of discussion, a working group of procurement experts assembled at the White House to finalize our recommendations. As I (predictably) argued for the most comprehensive coverage, many (predictably) worried about cost implications. I was losing.

Then a civil servant from Federal Acquisitions spoke: "For what it is worth, in my years of working with these policies I can tell you it is far more costly to craft a reform that doesn't get at the problem than to create one that does."

She ended our debate and fundamentally changed the universal one.  

In each of these instances, the civil servants who saved the day had worked for the Republican administrations before ours, contributing their remarkable talents to achieving ends at odds with many of my core values. Their service then, as now, reflects their incredible character and commitment to making government work best in the direction its citizens choose. It's why the departures are so alarming — a last resort of patriots no longer certain that a government best served by expertise and the critical role of dissent will respect either.

I recently asked a former analyst how she was doing. "It's hard. We're sad. How we can effectively advocate for other countries to protect their most vulnerable people if we are going to abuse our own?"

And yet, they're trying. With little visibility, minimal autonomy and rhetoric that continues to debase their contributions, they put on a brave face and serve — because it's never been about them. They deserve a country that recognizes their sacrifice and appointees who listen to their expertise and honor their service. 

If we fail our civil servants, we may well build — and pollute — a swamp that never was. 

And it's at least a four-year journey to that drain.