How Washington Really Works
from “Shadows of Hope”
By Sam Smith
Published by Indiana University Press (1994)
Early in the republic the capital discovered the seven deadly sins, soon grew weary of them, and has spent the subsequent decades developing variations. Congress has often set the pace.
Its favorite vice is not that of the White House, namely the usurpation of democracy, but rather its neglect. The days of legislative tyranny by a Sam Rayburn or a Lyndon Johnson are long gone. Jim Wright was but a meek shadow of his mentors as he gave up the House speakership, asking his colleagues: “Have I been too partisan? Too insistent? Too abrasive? Too determined to have my way? Perhaps. Maybe so.” In his place came bland Tom Foley who said, “Heightening tension is just another technique and it is not one I find particularly congenial.”
The consensus politics of Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell has been neither institutionally successful nor particularly popular with the voters. In fact, despite all the problems that Clinton faced in the first months in office, Congress remained far the larger target of public ire. In July 1993, when 51% of Americans had a favorable impression of Clinton, only 24% felt that way about Congress.
This was in many ways a bum rap, since the worst that Congress had often done was to reflect the real divisions of a very divided country. Where Congress split with the new president — most notably on the budget issue — it did so for politically sound, if not notably courageous, reasons. Thus Congress got in trouble for doing what it was supposed to do — which is to listen to the people. One poll displayed the inconsistency remarkably: although the public was not happy with the President’s economic program, a Democratic member of Congress who failed to support it would drop 15 percentage points.
The phenomenon of public impatience over the inefficiency and boisterousness of democracy is not new to the Congress nor to legislative councils generally. There is an excessive expectation of legislative deportment usually achievable only in the most undemocratic, corrupt or autocratic bodies. This public intolerance of what is often nothing more than healthy confrontation and necessary debate creates a covert bias towards autocracy — not for any ideological reason but simply because it seems more orderly and polite. Since a tightly run executive can stifle internal debate and present a dignified front to the public, whereas Congress is always brushing up against anarchy and confusion, the White House often finds itself with a sizable advantage over the legislature. The President, for example, is in a position to present a “comprehensive” health plan to the Congress; but that plan will have to be reviewed by several separate and potentially contentious Hill committees.
There are other serious handicaps the Congress faces, not the least of which is the growing territorial aggression of modern administrations and Congress’s limited skill in counteracting it. A particularly striking example is Congress’s acceptance of the so-called “black budget” consisting of funding for intelligence agencies, the specifics of which (in violation of the Constitution) are unknown to most of the members.
Despite creation of its own technological and budget oversight agencies, Congress is still outgunned by the massive complexities of the executive branch. It suffers from the transformation of tripartite government into a form of mediarchy with the president as celebrity-king. It persists in arcane, pompous and pointless procedures, many faithfully transmitted to the public by C-SPAN. The Senate readily consents, but rarely exercises its constitutional power to advise the president on treaties and appointments. Congress weakens itself by the corruption it tolerates and the potential this creates for blackmail by the White House and federal police agencies. It has largely given up its budget powers to the executive. It has drifted into an almost feudal dependency on the White House for the largesse of federal facilities and programs — 47 states, for example, were on the take for the super-collider program and four hundred congressional districts got a piece of the B-1 bomber. Further, Congress has long suffered from leadership that is not only politically weak but stunningly uncharismatic. From constitutional powers to soundbites, Congress comes up short.
Not the least of Congress’s problem is that the cohesiveness formerly provided by congressional bosses, their role secured by rigid seniority, was never replaced by anything else, not, for example, by the enforced loyalty of a parliamentary system nor by the greater party emphasis of proportional representation. Congress has become retail politics at its most complex.
Even such labels as conservative, liberal and moderate oversimplify and distort matters. As one example, Jeremy and Carol Grunewald Rifkin noted in Voting Green that green legislators do not conform to traditional geographic or ideological groupings. For example, the Rifkins found that 77% of the representatives receiving an A for their environmental record came from either the east or the Pacific coast. Of those receiving an F, 81% were from the south, mid-west and the non-coastal west. Five out of the eleven highest ranking green members of the House were black and three were women, far out of proportion to their presence in the House.
On the other hand only four of the top eleven House greens rate a 100% score in the rankings of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action; on the Senate side only one of the top ten greens made a similar score in the ADA list. Meanwhile, the top greens in Congress all enjoy a lifetime AFL-CIO voting record of 80% or better.
With the breakdown of the political parties and congressional autocracy, individual members of Congress have clearly gained independence, but they lack a concomitant growth in power. The condition can be described by analogy: if you go to a cathedral you are expected to keep the silence; if you go to a baseball stadium you may scream at will. In neither place, however, will your personal views attract much attention.
oAlthough the media presents Washington as a city grappling with the major issues of our time, much of the town’s workday is absorbed by highly specific concerns. The president is worried about the spin to give a statement or appearance. The lobbyist is obsessed with a very particular amendment to a very particular bill. The size of the capital’s bureaucracy is necessitated in no small part by the number and specificity of regulations it must administer. And woe to the member of Congress who lets larger concerns surpass the parochial needs of the district.
Thus Washington is awash in the politics of particulars. Much of the time expended by the Clinton taskforce on health legislation had to do not with deciding upon principles but tackling the innumerable exceptions to them. Go to a congressional hearing concerning something you consider a good idea and you are likely to be startled by the number of people and interests this benign concept will allegedly injure.
One of the best descriptions of how Washington really operates can be found in Thurman Arnold’s Folklore of Capitalism. Arnold imagines applying the principles of a contemporary debate to the attempted rescue of Amelia Earhart:
First, plans would have been made for the use of the best planes to search the ocean. Then, when this extravagance was attacked publicly, cheaper planes would have been used. By the time that this device had received condemnation for inefficiency, the rescue would have been changed from a practical, efficient endeavor to a public debate about general principles. Everyone would have agreed that people in distress must be rescued. they would have insisted, however, that the problem was intimately tied up with balancing the national budget, improving the character of people lost at sea, stopping the foolhardy from adventuring and at the same time encouraging the great spirit of adventure and initiatives and so on ad infinitum. They would have ended perhaps by creating a commission to study the matter statistically, take a census of those lost at sea, examine the practices in other countries. What was saved in airplane fuel would be spent on research so that the problem could be permanently solved.
The town’s most common skill, its trade of choice, is finding what is wrong with something. For the bureaucrat, this eliminates the need for action. For the politician, it lessens risk. For the lobbyist, it means points with the client. For the public interest group, democracy and justice are at stake. And for the lawyer and reporter, it is just instinctual. All day long, Washington hums with people trying to stop other people from doing something, and with considerable frequency they are successful. At times Washington seems a series of endless loop videos in which policies are debated, lobbied and almost acted upon before the tape repeats itself once more. This is the city that first heard a president call for national health insurance in the 1940s and it is where HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros spoke of President’s Clinton commitment to the homeless only to be told by another administration aide, “Oh, he comes from Arkansas. It’s a small state. After he’s here for a while he’s get used to it.”
In an interview with Time’s Ann Blackman, Cisneros described the Washington he had found:
We’ll spend hours talking through a strategy of meeting all the objections to try and move our homeless initiative through the Office of Management Budget and through congressional committees. We’ll spend hours talking about how to please this or that person. Meanwhile, it’s dusk. And people are starting to bed down for the night — for one more night in the park outside the window. And we could go on for days talking and never get one step closer to the people who are using cardboard for beds in the nation’s capital.
There is no law or corrupt practice that makes it thus but rather something deeper: a primal urge to maintain the equilibrium of the capital. The imperative of the parochial rises to the top, club before country. There is no need for conspiracies; it is simply a part of the culture of a city that often reminds one of the ditty:
One can not hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do,
Unbribed, there is no reason to.
oWhich is one reason you didn’t find too many unhappy lobbyists around Washington in the first months of the Clinton administration. While the Clinton rhetoric resonated with disgust over influence peddling, it soon became obvious that this was mostly rhetoric, that which wasn’t rhetoric was not about to be enacted and, in any case, Clinton was proposing enough new laws and regulations to provide a major jobs stimulus package for Washington lawyer-lobbyists over the next four years.
A few lobbyists and corporate lawyers did take major pay cuts. They were the ones hired by Clinton for his administration. Here are some examples:
- Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of Interior: His firm represented a Mexican industry coalition pushing for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
- Samuel Berger, deputy national security advisor: Was a lobbyist for Caterpillar, Berg Steel Pipe, Poland, Timex, May Dept. Stores, and Toyota’s US subsidiary.
- Ron Brown, secretary of commerce: Represented foreign auto makers, American Express, Japan Airlines, Oman, Zaire, Baby Doc Duvalier, Gabon, and a coalition of 21 Japanese electronics producers. His firm has represented New York Life Insurance, Mutual Life Insurance, scores of Japanese firms and American multinationals, BCCI and Guatemala.
- Hillary Rodham Clinton, White House aides Vincent Foster, William Kennedy III & Webster Hubell, Associate Attorney General: Their firm has represented Tysons Food, Beverly Enterprises, TCBY and the country’s largest parking meter manufacturer.
- Warren Christopher, Secretary of State: Was on the board of Lockheed and the parent company of Southern California Edison. His law firm has represented Southern CA Edison, Bankers Trust, Lockheed, IBM, United Airlines, Occidental Petroleum, Fuji Bank, the Mexican government, Mitsubishi, as well as Exxon in suits related to pollution of Prince William Sound.
- Mickey Kantor, US Trade Representative: Has represented Occidental Petroleum, Martin Marietta and Atlantic Richfield. His firm has represented Philip Morris, GE, United Airlines, and NEC.
- Bruce Lindsey, Personnel Director: Represented Drexel Burnham Lambert.
- Hazel O’Leary, Secretary of Energy: Was chief lobbyist for Northern States Power of Minnesota.
- Bernard Nussbaum, White House counsel: His firm has represented Time Warner, Sears, Citicorp Real Estate, Goldman Sachs and Salomon Brothers.
- Howard G. Paster: legislative assistant to the President: Former PR executive whose firm represented Anheuser-Bush, Union Pacific, the Healthcare Leadership Council and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Assn. With his former law firm, he had clients such as Chrysler, Northrop and the National Rifle Assn..
- Richard Riley, Secretary of Education: Represented the German firm of ThermalKEM. His firm has represented Honda, Mercedes, Philip Morris and BMW.
- Robert Susman, Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: former legal counsel for the Chemical Manufacturing Assn..
- Togo West, Army Secretary: Was chief lobbyist for Northrop.
- R. James Woolsey, CIA Director: Sat on the board of British Aerospace Inc. and Martin Marietta. Represented the Swiss company Societe Generale de Surveillance, McDonnell Douglas Corporation and General Dynamics.
Beyond such appointees was a gaggle of lobbyists who had played key roles in the Clinton campaign but for various reasons — including the wish not to be questioned closely about their affairs during a confirmation hearing — did not join the administration.
oTo one not immersed in the mores of the capital, such selections might seem odd, especially for a president who had promised major change in the way Washington does its business. It might even startle that 77% of Clinton’s initial cabinet were millionaires, beating out both Reagan and Bush in this category. But in DC, the Clinton choices barely raised an eyebrow. Clinton’s cabinet may not have looked like America, but it certainly looked like establishment Washington. It required no corruption or conspiracy for the city’s journalists to ignore it; everything was just too normal.
To be sure, a few questions were raised. Early in the administration, the new national economic advisor Robert E. Rubin wrote numerous clients of his former firm, Goldman Sachs, inviting them to stay in touch. Rubin, who had been one of Wall Street’s “four horsemen” of leveraged takeover arbitrage, and who would shortly submit a financial disclosure form listing an estimated income in 1992 of $26.5 million from his GS partnership, wrote:
I hope I can continue to rely on your interest and support as I move from Broad Street in New York to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC., and would be grateful for whatever suggestions you would offer.
The story appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The Times quoted a federal lawyer who declared: “It doesn’t strike me that there’s anything there that would raise any kind of specter of a violation of law or regulation.” A former Bush Administration ethics official, while insisting on anonymity, told the Times: “Assuming severance of all financial ties, there is no legal prohibition to dealing with former clients and employers, but we always tried to negotiate a grace period of a year or so” before resuming contact. By Washington standards the exculpatory quotes of the anonymous federal and Bush administration officials had cleared Rubin and the story died.
Thus do the sometimes disparate segments of official Washington come together to protect themselves from the outside critic, the populist insurgency or the reformers’ zeal. One may, for example, easily test the true range of opinion within the foreign affairs establishment by proposing some common sensical (but to the experts grossly repugnant) idea such as ending all military aid to dictators and those countries inclined to bully their neighbors. In such an instance, the so-called “policy debate” suddenly disappears and a deep commonality among those who control the country’s foreign activities will become apparent.
Similarly, extraordinarily close relationships exist between certain committees of Congress, the agencies they fund, and concerned lobbies. In such political menages a trois, the public interest is simply left out of the discussion.
Even the media knows when, in the Washington common interest, to look the other way. For example, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s reaction to its embarrassment over the Clarence Thomas nomination has been to announce that henceforth derogatory personal information concerning Supreme Court nominees would be discussed in secret. While the Senate will have access to the transcript, release of information contained in it would subject a senator to expulsion. The media declined to raise the alarm over this remarkable affront to open government.
All but a few reporters were similarly indifferent when, during the Iran-Contra hearings, Rep Jack Brooks asked Oliver North a question about administration contingency plans to suspend the Constitution under certain ill-defined circumstances. Committee chair Daniel Inouye responded that the issue would be discussed in executive session. As outlined by Alfonzo Chardy in the Miami Herald, the plan involved turning state and local government over to the military and the national government over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency under circumstances so broad they included domestic protest against US military adventures. Thus, perhaps the most important question of the entire hearings never got a public answer.
The blurring of lines in Washington is a daily occurrence. Lobbyists, reporters, and members of both parties get drunk together at black-tie functions like the Gridiron Dinner. There is only mild head shaking when a purportedly Democratic president promises not to campaign against Republicans who support his proposed trade agreement with Mexico. Little attention is paid when David Gergen invites John Erlichman to lunch at the White House mess.
Understanding such phenomena helps to explain why the major influx of new congressmembers after the 1992 election had so little effect. What Washington does wrong is often not the result of individual avarice, malevolence, or even incompetence. The city has its own permanent style, its own rhythm, its own self-protective values — and it takes more than a handful of freshman legislators, eager reporters or bright young White House aides to change it.
In fact, the crop of new representatives who hit the Hill in the wake of the House check-bouncing scandals proved little more resistant to tradition than their predecessors. According to Common Cause, the 110 newest House members raised nearly half of their campaign money from political action committees in the first six months of office.
And what of those replaced by the fresh political winds of 1992? According to a study by Public Interest Research Group, 101 out of 319 people leaving the executive or legislative branches in January went into direct lobbying and another 79 joined law firms that also do lobbying.
oAlthough Americans are apt to inveigh against lobbies and “special interests” as much as they do against Congress, the former are just as much a part of the American system. Alan Taylor, writing in The Journal of American History about 1790s politics in upstate New York, notes that “interests” developed even before political parties:
An interest collected to-gether individuals of compatible desires out to advance their self-interests, but an interest was unequal and hierarchical. It coalesced around a leading man who could influence others and reward his supporters. The lesser partners reaped small favors from the more powerful in recognition of their support – a support that preserved the authority of the man at the top. In New York during the 1790s, commentators occasionally referred to “the agricultural interest,” “the manufacturing interest,” and ” the mercantile interest,” but these were abstractions that rarely seemed to have any concrete power; it was more common for “interest” to refer to the personal following that a leading man or a prominent family could influence, as in “the Livingston interest” or “the Van Rensselaer interest.”
Almost precisely two hundred years before Robert Rubin’s epistle to his former clients, John Talbot wrote John Porteous in November 1792:
If you can find a freedom to give me your vote and influence, it will lay me under an obligation which I shall always be happy to make returns
A few years later Ebenezer Foote advised congressional candidate Peter Van Gaasbeck, “Every Person wants a letter particularly addressed to himself or he supposes his importance is not duly noted.”
The custom of “making interest” preceded significant party-building in most of the rural US prior to 1800. Parties spread, says Taylor, from the seaport cities to the mid-Atlantic states, New England and “last (if at all) to the South.” Taylor quotes historian Harry Watson as saying of North Carolina that “a complex mixture of voluntary deference and coercion marked relations between political leaders and followers. . .The use of party structures . . .was almost nonexistent.”
Given the weakness of today’s two major but amorphous parties, it may therefore not be surprising that such interest politics is once again thriving. Livingston and Van Rensselaer have been replaced by Perot and Limbaugh. And David Walls, writing in The Activist’s Almanac, suggests that “the role once played by minor parties of injecting new political ideas and programs into the public arena has been largely superseded by the rise of nonprofit advocacy organizations and think tanks”
Interest groups do often function as surrogate political parties, which helps to create an intricate political mosaic as indecipherable in its own way as the traditional two-party mush. Some of these interests are extraordinarily potent and broad-based. The American Association of Retired People has some 33 million members. For comparison, Dukakis received 41 million votes.
Each day some 8000 new members join AARP; half of all Americans over the age of 65 belong. With 400,000 active volunteers and member services ranging from insurance to credit cards, the AARP rivals the two parties in terms of effective organizing and potential for political mobilization.
Other lobbies are simply potent, such as the corporate and financial interests that turn up on the Hill at tax and budget times. These lobbies are important not just because of the campaign money they generate but because they are frequently better prepared with legislative language and supporting arguments than the legislators themselves.
The same is true of lobbying federal agencies. Although the public often thinks of interest politics as something primarily occurring in the halls of Congress, the explosion of federal regulatory law and the huge purchasing decisions of the executive branch make this no longer true. William Greider in Who Will Tell the People? quotes an Environmental Protection Agency administrator as saying that in his arguments with the Carter White House, three out of every four of the White House comments on EPA proposed rule-making “were cribbed right from industry briefs.”
No one knows how many lobbyists there are in town. In 1981, Robert Reich, then a Harvard professor, estimated the Washington regulatory “community” to consist of 92,500 people including lawyers, lobbyists and their employees, trade journalists, corporate representatives, public affairs specialists and consultants. The count is complicated by the fact that many lobbyists escape registration requirements. Says Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, “No one in Washington ever admits they lobby.”
Whether the number of actual lobbyists is 10,000 or 30,000 seems to make little difference when you consider that, even at the lower figure, every lobbyist meeting just once with each member of congress would result in over five million lobbying contacts.
There was a time when lobbying was more of an art than a profession. A Washington regular recalls an early job with one of the most powerful lobbyists in town. Together they set out to visit a southern senator. Once in the Hill office, the lobbyist and the senator discussed nothing but hunting and fishing for 45 minutes. When it was time to leave, the pair walked out of the suite, the senator’s arm draped over the lobbyist’s shoulder. As they crossed the threshold, the lobbyist casually pulled out an envelope and handed it to the senator, remarking, “Here’s something you might like to look at.” It was a request for assistance on a certain legislative matter.
The lobbyist and his aide returned to their office and the former immediately sat down to write a thank you note which he attached to backup material on his legislative request. The aide was then dispatched back to the Hill with the envelope to complete the courtly negotiation.
A radical change in lobbying occurred in the 1970s. Business executives who had previously regarded lobbying as something not quite respectable became worried by the success of Ralph Nader. They formed the Business Roundtable, a group limited to the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and devoted to using the immense assets of these corporations — including their customers and employees — to affect political decisions in Washington. Greider reports that in 1970 only a handful of Fortune 500 companies had public affairs offices in Washington; by 1980, 80% did.
Still, as late as 1979, according to Tip O’Neill, a businessman as savvy as Lee Iacocca would need basic lobbying advice. George Streinbrenner had set up a meeting between the Speaker and the boss of the then failing car company. The session did not go well and the next day Steinbrenner told O’Neill that “Lee called me and said you were the coldest bastard he ever met.”
“What did he expect? He came in with a whole damn army. Do you think I’m going to tell him how to get the job done in front of all those lawyers and lobbyists. They’ll just take credit for my ideas. Tell Iacocca to come back and see me, just the two of us, head on head, and I’ll tell him what to do.”
Iacocca returned and O’Neil asked him, “Tell me, how many people in my district work for Chrysler or one of its suppliers?”
Iacocca had no idea so O’Neill told him to find out and to do the same for every congressional district in the country: “Make up a list, and have your employees and dealers in each district call and write letters to their own member of Congress.”
What O’Neill suggested is now practiced by many lobbies — corporate and public interest — on a daily basis. In the endless pseudo-referendum sponsored by these lobbies, the fact that the phone calls and letters are less than spontaneous matters little. Regardless of motivation, one such message is believed by various specialists to represent the views of 200-400 voters. Thus even a hundred letters or phone calls favoring a certain position can cause a member of Congress to pay attention.
Some firms have taken lobbying into cyberspace, moving so to speak from the grassroots to astroturf. One operation uses a sophisticated phone bank aimed at voters in a relatively few key congressional districts. It is operated, says an activist who has worked there, by “whatever policy wonks are out of work. Last year it was Democratic wonks; this year it’s Republican wonks.” The callers are looking for, say, 100 constituents and ten community leaders in each district friendly to its client’s legislative issue. When one is found, the caller keeps talking, drilling in the policy. Then the telemarketer asks if the voter minds being connected directly to their congressmember. Patched into the legislative office, the well-rehearsed constituent delivers the packaged message. The marketer then follows up by calling back the voter and offering to send a confirmatory mailgram (written, of course, by the firm).
A recent variation of this theme invites TV viewers to dial a toll-free number should they agree with the thrust of a lobby’s commercial. When they call, they are quickly transferred to their own member of Congress.
Such methods are not only extremely effective; many are beyond the scope of present lobbying laws, which anachronistically assume that lobbying pressure will be on government officials rather than upon their constituents.
There are other techniques. One is the increased use of fax banks by trade associations to organize their own membership for action. And in 1991, when Congress was considering legislation of critical concern to the regional phone companies, a dozen or so lobbyists from the Baby Bells stood outside the Senate floor. As David Corn reported in The Nation:
Each held a cellular telephone by which to relay every suggested change in the legislation to headquarters. There teams of lawyers and analysts scoured the proposed language and determined whether the bill would bring their companies new profits.
Less high tech but just as effective is what has been called “grasstop” lobbying. Here a pressure group simply hires close friends of targeted legislators whose sole job is to pressure their elected buddies. Michael Pertschuk, co-director of the Advocacy Institute, pointed out in a 1992 speech that Philip Morris’ lobbying report to the House Clerk in 1990 showed payments of $11,800 just to lobby Congressman Bill Richardson of New Mexico. And Senator Bob Dole, who has led the fight against various tobacco control measures, had his own grass top lobbyist, who was paid $36,000 to pressure his buddy, the senator.
Pertschuk’s information came from internal Philip Morris documents uncovered by anti-tobacco activist Alan Blum. In them, a senior lobbyist offers insights into the culture of pressure politics:
With these people, you get just as much political clout by sponsoring a hunting or fishing trip rather than taking them to NYC. And it’s cheaper and less hassle. This group really loves to hunt. The same guys I took to the racetrack in Oklahoma and hunting last year were the very ones that helped us hold the leadership firm on no cigarette taxes. . .
Last year, we gave out about $11,000 to Kansas legislators. It may not sound like much, but that’s the most we could give without sticking out like a sore thumb. . .
If the current media flap over legislators’ trips dissolves, we are planning on taking four trips [to NYC] with honoraria involved. Two Senate trips with three members and spouses on each trip. . .
We continue to give to the various caucuses and they will continue to be of service to us. . . This type of contribution does buy political clout. . .
John M. has done a great job with his first session as our lobbyist. He is best friends with the Speaker and used major personal clout to kill our cigarette tax.
None of this sophisticated manipulation means that lobbying is immune from normal Washington inefficiencies. As one lobbyist put it, “There is lots of locomotion masquerading as cerebration.” There are, for example, the long lunches at restaurants such as the Palm, Prime Rib and Mr. K, during which lobbyists and government officials balance drinks in one hand and the legal niceties of pressure politics in the other. And there are the briefings provided by trade associations that allow corporate field representatives to report to the home office that they had “breakfast with Senator Jones and he let it drop that. . .” — never mentioning that the meal was in the company of 95 other lobbyists.
oSometimes the reason for the lobbying can be a bit obscure, as when a campaign for year-round daylight savings was covertly inspired by a manufacturer of charcoal seeking to expand the grilling season. And much legislation is so complex that only a lobbyist and a member of Congress could love it.. A corporate summary of the 1993 Senate and House tax bills, for example, consumed 42 pages even in highly abbreviated tabular form. The result is that many issues of principle become extraordinarily convoluted and arcane as they proceed through Congress. Not surprisingly, public advocacy groups have taken to responding to the establishment’s legalisms with more of their own.
Go back to the 60s and Ralph Nader was about the only public interest lawyer in town who wore a suit and his wasn’t pressed. Today, many advocacy groups have drifted into the lawyerly style and pace of the establishment they are supposedly trying to change. They have, in their own way, become capital institutions, part of the ritualized, status-conscious, and very safe, trench warfare of the city.
A case in point is Americans for Democratic Action, a multi-issue labor-oriented organization once powerful enough to attract vehement rightwing assaults but now a sort of liberal Leisure World. Some years back, I joined ADA in the hope that it might once again become a potent progressive force. Many considered it no longer relevant to Washington politics, yet it had an annual budget nearly three-quarters of a million dollars and some 20,000 members. At the very least it was sucking money and energy from the progressive cause; at best it could be reborn. I eventually became an executive vice president, but simultaneously became increasingly frustrated. It seemed that many in the organization were not unlike Charles Hodge, who taught at the Princeton Seminary in the early 19th century and bragged that in his fifty-year career he had never broached a new idea. The leadership deeply resented attempts to evolve an alternative to the war on drugs, to democratize policy-making and to increase chapter and youth influence. When several of us formed a “progressive caucus,” the leadership appreciated neither the effort nor the irony of its name and within a year the leaders — including the past treasurer, the current chair of the Chicago chapter, the former chair of ADA’s youth organization and myself — had been purged from our official positions.
I had naively assumed that ADA wanted to change and that the debate would only be over the direction. After all, the organization clearly had lost most of its influence and was sitting on the political landscape, in the words of Disraeli, like a range of exhausted volcanoes.
But the organization’s leadership wanted nothing of the sort. What it really wanted was to retain its status as the traditional voice of liberals in Washington, even if this status had the limited élan, say, of being an alleged Russian count in Manhattan. To have challenged liberal orthodoxy would have been to lose caste with its orthodox liberal allies in Congress and to lose funding from its orthodox labor backers. In short, ADA could not regain its former political stature without risking its social position and it preferred the latter.
Nothing tested a progressive organization’s relative interest in politics and status than the arrival of the Clinton administration. There seemed a broad assumption that under Clinton many of these groups would function in much the same sort of influential manner as, say, the Heritage Foundation had under Reagan. This led to numerous acts of encouragement, support and obsequiousness during the campaign and immediately thereafter. The Sierra Club turned its considerable grassroots network loose. Gay groups raised at least $3.5 million. And ADA, two months before the convention, moved to switch its endorsement from Tom Harkin to Clinton without making a single demand, clearly motivated more by a desire to curry favor than to create influence.
When it developed that much of the love for Clinton would be unrequited, activists became more feisty and critical. But there was still a considerable number who could be found enjoying whatever power can be squeezed out of an occasional phone call from the White House or a feel-good briefing at the Executive Office Building. As one environmental activist said of some his peers, “They love to go to the White House; they love to go to the meetings. They’re very susceptible to any attention.”
Even among more realistic activists, the first year of the new administration meant considerable adjustments. One told me, “The environmental movement played by the rules. The Sierra Club worked its ass off during the campaign. Now you just don’t get much to show for it.” Others, despite problems with Clinton, felt grateful for progress, no matter how small, and to have at least an occasional inside line to the administration through Vice President Al Gore.
Of all the groups that cast their lot with Clinton, the environmentalists seem to have experienced the broadest range of reactions. This is not that surprising given that environmentalists are a far more varied lot than is often supposed, ranging from reactionary conservationists to radical tree-spikers.
Environmentalists have long and sophisticated experience working the Washington scene. According to Kirkpatrick Sale in The Nation, they also have “at least 12,000 grassroot groups, some 150 major nationwide organizations, a total budget of perhaps $600 million a year, an estimated membership of 14 million Americans, the support, according to various polls, of some 75 percent of the population, and considerable political clout at all levels.” Some might say that the environmentalists prove that citizen lobbying can produce change in Washington, but such stats also indicate the massive force it takes to make the capital budge.
Consider for example, gays and lesbians who, despite their considerable contribution to the Clinton campaign coffers, took a major beating on the gays in the military issue. With no powerhouse like Gore on the inside, without a strong grassroots strategy, opposed by the Pentagon (the largest lobby in the country) and with the antipathy of much of the nation, the gay movement would ironically find itself ending up in some ways more beleaguered than before Clinton had came to its aid.
As New York Times journalist Jeffrey Schmalz wrote shortly before he died of AIDS:
Bogged down early on in a battle over homosexuals in the military, Clinton has grown wary of anything that the public might perceive as a gay issue.
Thus the infinitely more critical AIDS crisis suffered, leading Bob Hattoy, the gay aide eased from the White House to the Interior Department to say of Clinton’s political advisers: “I don’t think they’ll address AIDS until the Perot voters start getting it.”
The dilemma gays and lesbians initially faced was not unlike that of other progressives. Said Tanya Domi of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force early in the term, “For the first time, we have an administration with a more positive attitude toward us, and we don’t known the best ways to relate to that, whether from the inside or the outside.” As late as mid-April a poll found 88% of gays and lesbians approving of Clinton’s handling of the presidency and 74% believing that he was keeping his campaign promises.
As the gay ban issue was heating up, though, Beth Donovan of Congressional Quarterly wrote that colleagues were coming up to gay congressmember Barney Frank “to complain that they were hearing only from opponents. That, Mr. Frank says, elevated the fear of a backlash against members who support lifting the ban. ‘House members needed to hear from gays and their parents and friends and relatives,’ he says.”
To someone living in a city like Washington, where significant gay participation in politics is not only taken for granted but actively solicited by politicians of all stripes, the gay ban debate seemed somewhat anachronistic. Even as the joint chiefs were trembling over gays in their midst, a candidate for DC city council chair (and former Clinton campaign co-chair) was accused of stacking the endorsement meeting of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club in an attempt to ensure the gay group’s endorsement. In much of urban America, candidates long ago discovered that homosexuals register to vote in extraordinarily high numbers (93% for gays, 90% for lesbians) and have unusually high average household incomes (nearly $52,000 for gays, almost $43,000 for lesbians), much of which is categorized as disposable. In fact, for Washington’s economy, the 1993 national gay and lesbian march turned out to be even better than the Clinton inauguration. According to DC Convention and Visitors Association, the weekend event brought in $177 million to the city compared with only $65 million from the inaugural.
Says gay journalist Frank Browning of Pacific News Service and National Public Radio: “As political and economic creatures, our utility to the large society exists for two reasons: we spend money disproportionately to our numbers . . . and we vote more aggressively than other Americans. It is for similar reasons that American Jews have had disproportionately more influence politically and economically than their numbers would suggest.”
Yet as political scientist Larry Sabato told CQ’s Donovan, gays fighting the military ban failed to follow up on the opening their contributions had provided: “Money may open the door, but votes and mail and phone calls make the sale.”
Besides, the $3.5 million raised by gays sounds like a lot until you consider that the real estate industry raised $11 million to influence the parties and congressional races in 1991-92; the medical-industrial complex coughed up $20 million and even the restaurant and bar industry gave almost as much as the gays. The ante for the Washington influence game has become enormous. Ask the Mexican government. Since 1989, that country spent $30 million to persuade Americans of the need for a North American Free Trade Agreement. That was more than the three largest previous foreign lobbying campaigns — South Korean, Japan and Kuwait — combined.
0The ill effects of Washington influence peddling presents one of the strongest arguments for devolving power from the capital to the fifty states and their localities. While corporate lobbyists function at all levels, it is often easier and cheaper for citizen action groups to fight them locally than it is to take them on nationally. Even the environmental movement, with its major presence in Washington, has benefited enormously from the impact of local action and pressure. In 1992 alone, for example, the 100 largest localities pursued an estimated 1700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government between 1983 and 1991.
Another example has been the drive against smoking. While the tobacco lobby ties up Washington, 750 cities and communities have passed indoor smoking laws. And then there is the Brady Bill. By the time the federal government got around to acting on it, half the states had passed similar measures.
So powerful is the potential for decentralized action that pressure groups sometimes demand that federal or state laws prevent lower levels of government imposing their own restrictions. In one case, the North Carolina legislature passed anti-smoking legislation that, under tobacco industry pressure, preempted local action on the matter. The bill, however, had a six-month delay before it took effect; during this interim some 30 communities passed their own laws.
Richard Klemp, vice president for corporate affairs for the Miller Brewing Company — that is to say their chief lobbyist — laid out the stats of the problem in a 1993 speech. Klemp noted that the firm had to deal with 7600 state legislators, 535 members of Congress, 50 governors, one president, hundreds of regulatory officials, and thousands of mayor and city councils. “At each biennium,” he said, “there are more than 200,000 bills introduced in the state legislatures and 12,000 bills introduced in Congress, any one of which could have a limiting or potentially devastating effect on the brewing industry . . . In 1991, we tracked 1,200 bills that were relevant to our bottom line. Out of these, 48 were enacted into law, and of those, 41 were supported by Miller.”
Klemp, successful lobbyist that he is, is unfazed by such an overwhelming prospect:
At Miller, lobbying is coordinated by our Corporate Affairs Department. Working together as a team, Corporate Affairs conveys our heritage and dynamism and communicates the key message that “beer belongs.” I like to compare us to the Superbowl champions. Our team is on the field, and no matter what the other side, whether it’s a competitor, a hostile congressman, or anti-alcohol group — no matter what they throw at us, we’re ready to make that play and win for our side. . .
oOne of the greatest checks on influence politics is a press that considers it news. Today this is only intermittently the case. That the press has the power to focus public attention and outrage has been repeatedly demonstrated, but the choice of targets often appears random. Thus the House check-bouncing affair assumed immense importance but the fact that ex-lobbyist Ron Brown, the new secretary of commerce, had only promised to recuse himself for twelve months on issues affecting former clients and not at all in matters affecting his law firm passed virtually without notice.
The relationship between the Washington media and the national government has always been ambivalent. On the day after the House approved the First Amendment, a member accused the press of “throwing over the whole proceedings a thick veil of misrepresentation and error.” At the other extreme, George Will quietly helped Ronald Reagan prepare for his debates and when Pat Buchanan, former rightwing White House official turned columnist, ran for the presidency, he was replaced on a TV show by former rightwing White House official turned TV commentator, John Sununu.
Similarly, as media personality David Gergen was being hired by the White House, former Pentagon flack Pete Williams was being transformed from Pentagon publicist to NBC correspondent. Wrote Newsday’s Marvin Kitman: “Williams was one of the architects of the most reprehensible press censorship policies we’ve ever had . . . Williams broke new ground in disinformation, Orwellian double-talk and obfuscations like ‘some collateral damage” . . . The oddest thing is that nobody batted and eyelash at the hiring announcement . . . nobody protests, or even cares. The barbarians are in the gate, for Pete’s sake.”
No less than Washington’s politicians and lobbyists, Washington’s journalists are creatures of the capital’s culture. The status of their subculture has improved measurably in recent decades, aided in no small part by the growing tendency of journalists to write about each other — a tool of upward mobility unavailable to other trades and professions.
This is not to say that most reporters are overpaid. The stories one hears about media stars — such as the network hotshots and those who appear on talk shows engaging in an activity known as “talking out their ass” — are the exceptions. Many print reporters especially pay a lifetime penalty for being excessively literate and insufficiently good-looking or garrulous. Further, like many hardworking government workers, they have little voice in the decisions of the system they serve. They remain trapped in a purgatory between the disdain of the public and ineffectualness within their own bureaucracy.
Yet while the changing status of journalism has made its ordinary practitioners neither content nor rich, it has nonetheless tended to widen the gap between reporters and those they write about. By education and social standing, if not by salary, journalists have joined the ruling class. And they like to act the part.
Thus 11,000 journalists showed up in Tokyo for the glamorous but unilluminating gathering of world leaders at the G-7 summit, while, until it was over, the disastrous floods in the mid-west had to take journalistic second place. In a more subtle example, the Washington media consistently adopts the current jargon of the capital no matter how misleading it may be to the average reader. For example, a budget cut in Washingtonese may not be a cut at all but rather (a) an increase less than inflation, (b) an increase less than an earlier projection or (c) an congressionally approved increase less than the president’s request. To the lay citizen such language may seem deceitful; to the politicians and the press it is a shared tongue.
Where the compatibility between the coverers and the covered becomes far more serious, however, is when the former ignore, distort or mislead to press their cause. Perhaps the most egregious example during the Clinton administration has been the coverage of health care reform and NAFTA.
In the first six months after the election the New York Times ran 62 stories that mentioned “managed competition” but only five referring to “single-payer” with none of these being more than a single-sentence reference.
Even before the election, the Times had editorialized that “the debate over health care reform is over. Managed competition has won,'” an outcome that the paper found “delicious” and “wondrous.”
According to Extra!, the media watchdog magazine:
The justification media managers give for the imbalance of attention is that while managed competition is supported by the Clinton administration, a single-payer system is not “politically viable.” What this means is that news judgments are based on elite preferences, not on popular opinion: The New York Times’ own polling since 1990 has con-sistently found majorities-ranging from 54 percent to 66 percent-in favor of tax -financed national health insurance.
Extra! also noted a similar twisting of the story on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Single-payer advocate Dr. Steffie Woolhandler appeared with three government officials who were mostly supporting managed competition. Ignoring the fact that it was his own staff that had determined the participants, Robin MacNeil made such comments as “Dr. Woolhandler, that’s three against one on the cost reduction thing” or “since you’re in the minority.” MacNeil also asked Woolhandler:
If this [program] that has a political consensus and the other one that you advocate is considered impossible politically at the moment, why are you then against the one that is viable and would produce a large amount of reform?
oIn 1992 there were 1400 news conferences at the National Press Club alone. The average American reporter, one study tells us, now works in a newsroom with 45 other people, typically for a publication owned by a chain. Some of these chains are Fortune 500 companies; some are subsidiaries of such companies. Covering the story is no longer just a journalistic matter, it is a bureaucratic problem. It requires not only news sense, but corporate sensitivity. Journalism is no longer the trade it once was, nor the profession it pretended to be, but a very big business. When you add corporate caution to social climbing and the inoffensive product favored by much of the media, a huge news hole develops in Washington.
To an extent not generally realized, this hole is partially filled by an ad hoc mixture of freelance journalists, activist congressional aides, government whistleblowers, class-action litigants and public interest groups that function as a cross between a form of alternative media and a people’s Government Accounting Office. This odd assortment also includes reporters and producers from a number of major television programs such as 60 Minutes, Frontline and 20/20, who are among the best and most committed journalists covering Washington.
Within this subculture you will find people like Pentagon whistle-blower Ernest Fitzgerald and lawyer Jack Blum, who kept the BCCI story alive as a Senate aide when most the city’s media could be less interested. There are people like Louis Clark and Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, who have had an extraordinary record of assisting government whistleblowers, publicizing their stories, fighting their cases in court and protecting them against almost inevitable retaliation. There is the many-tentacled Public Citizen with interests ranging from unsafe foods to nuclear power. There is the National Security Archives, a repository of data on governmental deeds and misdeeds, and the Project on Government Oversight which discovered the famed $600 Air Force toilet seats. There is the Advocacy Institute that teaches organizations how to lobby without money and counsels public interest groups. And there are individual staffers from congressional offices as diverse as that of black liberal John Conyers and white conservative Charles Grassley.
While it is comforting, and sometimes entertaining, to observe efforts to exorcise the city’s darker side, many of these unfortunately tend to be short-lived. A few years ago, for example, the Project on Government Oversight exposed a major congressional junket that had occurred under the patronage of various large lobbies. The lobbies were assisted by free transportation from the Air Force and by Air Force bagmen, a term of art for Pentagon officer-lobbyists always ready to carry a congressmember’s luggage or provide a wide range of other services. ABC News featured footage of corpulent congressmen cavorting on a Barbados beach with their corporate sponsors and of the embarrassed attempts by the participants to explain the whole thing.
In the wake of this disclosure, Keith Rutter of PGO estimates that some five similar junkets were canceled. The Democrats moved their annual schmoozefest from the luxurious resort at Greenbriar to the more serious surroundings of Williamsburg, with one aide saying that the party “didn’t want another Barbados on their hands.”
The problem, Rutter admits, is that while such efforts can have definite short-term impact, long-term they may just make people behave more cautiously. Indeed, a Public Citizen study found that during 1991-92, corporations, trade groups and educational institutions paid for at least 680 senatorial junkets.
Still, the fact that these groups and individuals manage to accomplish what they do with so little institutional or financial superstructure suggests that the problem of covering Washington well is as much a function of will as mechanics. The media, like much of the rest of Washington, has become too large, comfortable and complacent to do well the job it was sent to the capital to do.
oThe easiest way for the media to give the impression of independent analysis is to call upon “experts” at the various think-tanks around town. Many of these experts are, in fact, former government officials biding their time until recalled to the inner sanctums of power or are currently serving as consultants to those in office. While think tanks can sometimes be productive — the libertarian Cato Institute is an example — and occasionally provide a haven for truly original thinkers, they primarily function as the Catholic Church of conventional politics, their priests propagating the faith, blessing the faithful, redirecting the errant and showing up at fundraising dinners to add a little class and offer the benediction. And their collection plates are regularly filled by large corporations with some distinctly non-academic goals in mind.
In fact, it questionable how much cogitation actually occurs at a Washington think tank. Says Jonathan Rowe of those in the Heritage Foundation’s tank, they “don’t think, they justify.”
Public television is particularly susceptible to these political benchwarmers, whose biases are gracefully concealed by their academic or quasi-academic cover. Thus the Washington Post reported that conservative think-tanker Ben Wattenberg was looking for corporate and foundation funding for a public television show that would feature “intellectuals” debating the issues of the day. On Wattenberg’s list: Robert Bork, Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Kristol, Roger Wilkins, James Q. Wilson — mostly intensely partisan conservative activists with Wilkins being the only liberal in the crowd.
It works the other way as well, The bestowal by establishment institutions of memberships or fellowships upon members of the media can have a remarkably taming effect on the latter. Usually, this is done discreetly, but in the October 30, 1993, issue of the Washington Post, Richard Harwood frankly described journalistic participation in the Council on Foreign Relations, “whose members are the nearest thing to a ruling establishment in America.”
The officials who are members — including the President, six cabinet members, David Gergen — would hardly surprise one familiar with this citadel of conventional wisdom. Nor the fact that two out of three members live in either Washington or New York. Nor that ex-presidents, corporate CEOs, university presidents and the like pad the list.
What is a bit startling, however, is that more than ten percent of the membership of this ideological cavalry for establishment foreign policy are journalists. Included as directors over the past 15 years have been names like Heldey Donovan and Strobe Talbott of Time, Elizabeth Drew of the New Yorker, and Philip Geyelin of the Washington Post. Members include Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Jim Lehrer, Charles Krauthammer, William Buckley, and George Will. According to Harwood, seven editors of the Washington Post as well as Katherine Graham belong as do three editors of the New York Times.
One might suppose that given the media’s discouragement of gay, women and minority journalists from participating in marches and demonstrations, that Harwood’s piece was intended as a self-critical expose. Far from it. He writes approvingly:
The membership of these journalists. . .is an acknowledgment of their active and important role in public affairs and of their ascension into the American ruling class. They do not merely analyze and interpret foreign policy for the United States; they help make it. . .
oWhile institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute have long added theoretical underpinnings to political policy, Clinton’s arrival has forced such institutions of the New York-Washington axis to take seats behind the Cambridge-headquartered John F. Kennedy School of Government. In fact, the Clinton administration seems practically a subsidiary of this academy of wonkdom. Half of Clinton’s cabinet has ties to the school either as students, officials, fellows or faculty: Les Aspin, Bruce Babbit, Ron Brown, Henry Cisneros, Robert Reich, Richard Riley and Donna Shalala.
The Kennedy School is to government what the Harvard’s business school was to corporations in the 1980. There is a similar emphasis on technical skills — decision trees, case studies and so forth — and little interest in ethics, philosophical or humanistic principles. Not surprisingly, a lot of the money for the school comes from large corporations who are more than happy to have their tax deductible contributions used to teach public officials the Kennedy School way of governing.
This bureaucratic boot camp did once consider creating a “chair in poverty” to study “who has been poor for a long time and why,” but according to the Washington Post, then Dean Graham Allison (now in Clinton’s Pentagon) was unable to come up with the money. It didn’t really surprise him since, after all, most donors are “wealthy people, not poor people.” The conservative nature of this institution can be gauged by the fact that flaming moderate Robert Reich was considered its left-wing, a flank that apparently did not qualify him for tenure.
Executive dean Hale Champion told the Post that “if there isn’t a lot of traffic between here and Washington, then we’re not in touch with what’s going on.” A Kennedy School graduate student in an interview with Andrew Ferguson of the Washingtonian put it more succinctly:
The vast majority of people [at the school] are idealists. They want to change the world. But it’s more than that. To be honest, we feel that we’re entitled to change the world. . .
You think that’s arrogant. Maybe it is. But look around you. What you’ve got here are some of the brightest people in this country. If the country needs to change, let’s face it, we’re the ones to change it.
It’s not the first time that Harvard has felt entitled to such a role in Washington. In the 1960s Harvard theorists applied their paradigms to Southeast Asia with disastrous results. The 1980s were propelled in part by dubious management theses emanating from its business school. In the 1990s we find not only the Kennedy School rising to power, but former members of the Soviet bloc coming under the sway of Harvard B-School professor Jeffrey Sachs, whose plans for weaning these emerging republics from communism appear an economic version of General Sherman’s approach to weaning Georgia from the Confederacy.
While it is true that our two most recent presidents have been Yale men, the correlation between this fact and the problems of the nation seem without provable causation. This may be because Yalies have tended to prefer money while Harvard graduates (although not eschewing lucre) show a greater interest in influence and power. Thus the excesses of Yale tend to manifest themselves individually while those of Harvard confront us institutionally.
This certainly is the case in Washington where Harvard grads permeate not only the upper level of politics, but also of the media, the law and the think tanks, carrying with them an aura of what songwriter Allen Jay Lerner called Harvard’s “indubitable, irrefutable, inimitable, indomitable, incalculable superiority.”
This Harvard old (still mostly) boy network is a significant — yet because of its discretion underrated — influence on the city’s values and policies, reflecting, in the words of the historian and reluctant Harvard grad V.L. Parrington, the “smug Tory culture which we were fed on as undergraduates.” Writing for his 25th reunion report in the early part of this century, Parrington said:
Harvard is only a dim memory to me. Very likely I am wrong in my judgment, yet from what little information comes through to me I have set the school down as a liability rather than an asset to the cause of democracy. It seems to me the apologist and advocate of capitalistic exploitation — as witness the sweet-smelling list of nominees set out yearly for the Board of Overseers.
Seventy-five years later, this smug Tory culture quietly thrives in Washington, Not the least indication of this is the fact that products of Harvard and/or Yale comprise one-third of the top positions in an administration that said it was going to look like America.
Admittedly, Harvard and Yale do not provide the city’s only adult fraternities. The capital is crisscrossed with networks of those both inside and out of government sharing a common state political history, an alma mater or even a branch of military service. Novelist (and former managing editor of the UCLA newspaper) Clancy Sigal even revealed an old boy sidebar to the Watergate affair. Wrote Sigal of schoolmates Bob Haldeman, John Erchlichman, and Alex Butterfield:
The political really is personal. We validate our strongest beliefs not on a soapbox but in social relationships. Bob, a Beta, and his fiancee, Jo, double-dated with a Delta Gamma, who later married John, a Kappa Sig. Bob’s sister was in the same sorority as Alex’s wife-to-be. In short, the political relationships of almost all the top Watergate conspirators were originally mediated through their sorority dates: Watergate was a function of Greek Row networking.
oThe number-crunchers form another important Washington subculture, led by the uncritically accepted shamans of economics. The latter’s success with ex cathedra calculations has encouraged much of Washington to speak so confidently about numbers that one almost forgets how many of them were once only English majors.
The effect of numbers on the city has been profound. At times it seems that there are no governments anymore, only budget offices. The idea of a budget bureau at the federal level only goes back to Warren Harding. As late as 1975, Austin Kiplinger could write that the president’s budget officials were outnumbered by those of the various departments and thus “have to be especially sharp” and make up in clout what they lack in numbers. Today, few feel sorry for the White House budget squad, which has not only replaced many of the functions of departmental financial officials but those of the departments themselves.
As the numerologists rose in power, programs increasingly became transformed into line items. Numbers began serving as adjectives, ideas were reduced to figures and policy became a matter of where one placed the decimal point.. Thus, what should be a debate about programs becomes one about arithmetic, witness the media’s dissection of the numerical arguments made by both sides in the Gore-Perot NAFTA debate or the arithmetic anarchy that quickly developed around the health care issue. It is an emphasis that can produce bizarre results, such as the attempt cited by William Greider of various federal agencies to develop a cost-benefit factor for human life. The FAA figures it at $650,00 for the purpose of airplane crashes; the Labor Department thinks a dead construction worker is worth about $3.5 million, while OMB disagrees, putting the value of a hard hat at only $1 million.
Every day in Washington, many of the best and the brightest occupy themselves computing such figures, defending them before Congress, citing them before a trade association or recalling them on C-SPAN. Adding and subtracting are among Washington’s favorite activities, often providing a digital shield against discussing what the figures actually represent. Few speak of numbers with the clarity of Charles Dickens in David Copperfield:
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure, nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery
Not all number-crunchers push policy and vice versa, but digits and decimal places often lend specificity to the otherwise mushy art of the policy wonk. Central their work is the ability to project certitude. One banker acquaintance of George Bush’s recalls delivering the then president a prescient warning about the pending S&L crisis, only to have it summarily dismissed by Bush’s aide Richard Darman who convincingly and swiftly ticked off the reasons why the banker was wrong.
Little can puncture the self-assurance that inflates the world of the Washington expert. In office, a critical mass of them can create such documents as the Clinton health care package. Defending its complexity, Clinton advisor Ira Magaziner offered a revealing explanation: the Clinton team didn’t want to leave questions for some health policy board to decide in the future. In other words, the Clinton people knew more than anyone else, not only in the present but for the indefinite future.
oEven more significant to the city has been the rise of lawyers. Our current obsession with the lawyerly view of the world, exemplified by Clinton’s over-attorneyed cabinet, is not native to American culture. While nearly half the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were lawyers, it was some decades after the Republic’s founding that attorneys got to the point that they would be attacked as “unannointed rulers” of the land. The establishment of the profession had been hindered by several factors, not the least of which was hostility to what some perceived as the monarchical residue of English common law.
Even more important, however, was the conflict between law and nature. Perry Miller, in his Life of the Mind in America, depicts this with the example of Natty Bumppo, the John Fenimore Cooper character.
In The Prairie, the old scout Bumppo has violated game laws and then pointed his rifle at a constable. Judge Temple orders his arrest and at the trial warns his counsel, “Would any society be tolerable, young man, where the ministers of justice are to be opposed by men armed with rifles? Is it for this that I have tamed the wilderness?”
To which Bumppo’s advocate replies:
He’s simple, unlettered, even ignorant; prejudiced, perhaps, though I feel that his opinion of the world is too true; but he has a heart, Judge Temple, that would atone for a thousand faults; he knows his friends, and never deserts them, even if it be his dog.
Here, says Miller, was the great legal issue of the nineteenth century: “the never-ending case of Heart vs. Head,” — the natural goodness and wisdom of the American citizen vs. the exotic, syllogistic acrobatics of the law. Wrote Miller:
It was not that the American people were positively resolved on becoming lawless, in the manner of cinema badmen, but they did profoundly believe that the mystery of the law was a gigantic conspiracy of the learned against their helpless integrity.
Although de Tocqueville would soon find that people no longer seemed to distrust lawyers, this to his mind was not good. He considered lawyers — who “form the highest political class and the most cultivated portion of society” — a “counterpoise” to democratic government: “They constantly endeavor to turn it away from its real direction by means that are foreign to its nature.”
It was about this time that one justice declared that “It is the unenvied province of the Court to be directed by the head and not the heart . . . No latitude is left for the exercise of feeling.”
By the end of the century, Thorstein Veblen, found the lawyer:
. . . exclusively occupied with the details of predatory fraud, either in achieving or in checkmating chicanery, and success in the profession is therefore accepted as marking a large endowment of the barbarian astuteness which has always commanded men’s respect and fear.
Throughout the 20th century, popular and political culture has been marked by distrust of lawyers. Jim Hightower likes to tell of the Texas trial lawyer who stole from the rich and gave approximately half to the poor. And H.L. Mencken once suggested that since behind every bad law was a lawyer, they should all be executed and their bones sold to a mah jong factory.
Yet despite this substantial provenance of skepticism, the past few decades have seen an explosion of lawyerly influence on American life and politics perhaps rivaling that of the early 19th century. As one small indication, the number of employees in private legal services in Washington, DC — excluding those in the DC and federal government — rose 33% between 1985 and 1990 to nearly 30,000, to about one out of every ten working age adults.
What such numbers do not tell is the parallel rise in the influence of the lawyer’s perspective. The technology of torts, with its tyranny of precedents and its infatuation with retribution over resolution, has, in the words of the country & western song, walked across our heart like it was Texas. No politics, no ideology, no culture has been immune. All of American life has been hauled into court. Thus we find in our path not only the endless droppings of corporate attorneys, but civil rights advocates who insist that the law will lead us to love each other, feminist counselors who believe that the world’s oldest conflict can be settled on appeal, colleges that publish what amounts to a lawyer’s guide to correct sex, and public interest activists trying to run a revolution out of the courthouse.
Obviously the law has had a crucial role in such matters as civil rights and bringing the megacorporation to heel. But such achievements hardly justify an exclusive contract to direct the course of social change. If today’s lawyer-leaders had come to the fore thirty years ago, the 60s would have been just a lawsuit, not a cultural and political revolution. There would have been no music, no madness, no drama, and without them, probably not much change as well. There are things you just can’t do with a law suit. Martin Luther King, as usual, put it well:
Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.
oIn November 1992 we sent to the White House a man and a woman who represented the Washington professional ideal — he an unreconstructed student of law, numbers and policy options and she a dutiful advocate for corporations. No small amount of the conflict that has occurred since may be traced to an inchoate resentment of what the Clintons and their often incomprehensible policies represent: a new level of control of American culture by a mandarin class against which average citizens can array only a helpless integrity.
Natty Bumppo is back, only now he is fighting trade agreements. Here was the hidden issue in NAFTA, the sleeper problem with the Clinton health care plan. The 2000-page NAFTA agreement and the 1300-page health legislation could only have been envisioned by a lawyer. After all, as Perot pointed out, if you just wanted free trade with Mexico all you had to do was plug some zeros into existing tariff agreements. If you only wanted universal health care, you could take the Medicare law and strike the word “over 65” from it. The path from such admittedly oversimplified solutions to the engorged legislation of the Clintons lead past too many hidden agendas, to many unidentified bank accounts, too many unspecified bottom lines. Many American heads could not sort it out, but many American hearts knew it was wrong.
After all, even NAFTA’s supporters admitted it was far more than a trade agreement; it was part of the new world order. Late, perhaps too late, many had come to sense that this new order was not for them; that it was part of some strange and massive alteration in how things are run and who runs them; a hidden revolution against the sovereignty and ground-rules of their country.
It was, in the end, another step in the replacement of politics, laws and culture by a darwinian international marketplace mediated, if at all, by secret trade tribunals rather than public debate, one more step in the substitution of corporate law for constitutional democracy.
oThe 1960s, the civil rights movement, feminism and environmentalism all brought the country social as well as political change. Federal Washington has absorbed the latter, but to a remarkable degree has remained unaffected by the former. The city has observed these phenomenon not by changing its heart but by changing the federal code.
This is why, perhaps, Clinton can have such a good record of appointing minorities in high places and do so little to help those in low places. Blacks, women, latinos, even gays, are welcome into the most powerful offices of the city, provided they play by the rules of the club. It is the city’s political and social culture — not one’s own ethnic and sexual characteristics — that ultimately defines those who inhabit power.
Federal Washington is similarly unaffected by the contrasting culture of a local city that has lived with the twin indignities of racial segregation and political subservience, overcoming the former but still struggling with Official Washington — including government, media and the lobbies — functions in many ways like America’s largest and most prestigious club, a sort of indoor, east coast Bohemian Grove in which members engage in endless rites of mutual affirmation combined with an intense but genteel competition that determines the city’s tennis ladder of political and social power. What appears to the stranger as a major struggle is often only an intramural game between members of the same club, lending an aura of dynamism to what is in truth deeply stable. the latter. Despite the lessons to be learned there, local Washington is regarded as a terra incognita, a place of danger, and, in the truest sense, a colony.
Federal Washington is a culture in which much seems to happen but little gets accomplished. It is a culture in which neither the battles nor the words about them are necessarily real, in which the interests of the federal enclave inevitably proceed those of the country, and in which speaking of something is considered the moral equivalent of actually doing it.
It is a culture that can admit neither to itself nor to the larger world the degree to which its various systems are out of control. Nor can it admit that when it defines corruption only by its most precise legal limits it exempts itself from any broader decency.
It is finally a culture that has been remarkably successful at isolating itself from the reality it is attempting to govern. The abstract, soulless security of the capital protects it from the pain it causes, the suffering it neglects and the concerns it can quantify but not ameliorate. Here statistics substitute for tears, data for anger, and mechanically modulated voices recounting promises never to be fulfilled serve as a placebo for real hope and joy.
It is, in the end, the place described in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real: “Turn back, traveler, for the spring of humanity has gone dry in this place and there are no birds in the country except wild birds that are tamed and kept in cages.”