H E C L U B
Washington Really Works
"Shadows of Hope"
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
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
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
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.
Although 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
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
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do,
Unbribed, there is no reason to.
Which 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
To 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
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
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.
Although 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
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
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
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.
Sometimes 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
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
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
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,'
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
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.
The 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
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
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. .
One 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
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
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?
In 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
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
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.
The 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
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. . .
While 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,
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.
The 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
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
Even 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
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
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
In 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.
The 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
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
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."