Despite a dysfunctional Washington, the permanent political class is alive and well
WASHINGTON, June 9, 2014 – By any standard, Washington is increasingly dysfunctional. A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows that Congress’ approval rate has fallen to an all-time low of less than 10 per cent. President Obama’s approval rating is also in sharp decline.
But in Washington itself, our permanent political class is alive and well. The widely read book “This Town” by the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich helps to explain the reality, in which Democrats and Republicans, self-proclaimed “liberals” and “conservatives,” work closely together, not to advance the public interest, but to promote their own.
In 1974, only 3 per cent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Today, that number is 42 per cent for members of the House and 50 per cent for Senators. There is widespread inter-connectedness at the top in Washington. Alleged spokesmen for the right and left may heatedly debate on cable television, but the reality on the ground is far different.
In 2010, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), after writing in The New York Times about the “corrosive system of campaign financing,” joined with Andrew Hill Card, Jr., the former Bush chief of staff, in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby against corporate regulatory reform. After BP’s oil spill in the Gulf, it recruited what Leibovich calls a “bipartisan dream team” that included both a former top spokesman for Dick Cheney and the Democratic fund-raiser Tony Podesta.
Two of the top three political-action-committee donors to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are the same: Comcast and AT&T. The former Republican Senate leader Trent Lott and former Democratic House Leader Dick Gephardt are united in lobbying for GE. Increasingly typical is the bipartisan lobbying firm of Quinn, Gillespsie & Associates. Jack Quinn, who had been Bill Clinton’s White House counsel, joined with Ed Gillespsie, a principal drafter of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, and a former aid to Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader, who not long ago received $8 million in severance from the tea-party group, Freedomworks, worked together to advance a variety of special interests. Their idea, which many others share, is that administrations come and go, but they will be successful regardless. Now, Gillespsie is the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Virginia.
Jack Quinn says:
“We never lost a wink of sleep hypothesizing what the effect of the election outcome might be on the firm. We have a good group of Republicans and a fantastic group of Democrats.”
Alex Pareene of Salon argues that while hyper-partisanship is one reason people have a negative view of Washington, there is a larger source of that contempt:
“…the capital’s permanent, unshakable, elite over-class, many of whom are involved in the process by which corporations and the rentier rich tighten their control over the levers of power and use that control to extract as much wealth from the nation’s laborers and taxpayers and natural resources as possible.”
Even many of the populist tea-party revolutionaries elected in 2010 quickly began raising funds from the very corporations and special interests they had been criticizing. They recruited lobbyists to staff their congressional offices. The tea-party backed senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, hired an AT&T and Citigroup lobbyist as his chief of staff.
In 2008, Barack Obama declared that:
“When I am president, I will start by closing the revolving door in the White House that’s allowed people to use their administration job as a stepping-stone to further lobbying careers.”
It hasn’t worked out that way. Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, is now at Citibank. Jake Stewart, the Treasury Department’s counsel, is now spokesman for Goldman Sachs. Davjd Plouffe, the campaign manager and senior presidential adviser, went on to become a consultant for Boeing and GE. Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director who helped Michelle Obama set up her program to fight obesity in children, is now a consultant with food manufacturers and media firms to block restrictions on commercials for sugary foods targeting children. Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner joined Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm, although he had no experience whatever in the private equity field.
Writing in New York Magazine, Frank Rich notes that:
“It’s clear that the president himself has been either passive or ineffectual when it comes to exerting any moral authority over the White House Alumni who’ve been streaming through the revolving door.”
In his book, Mark Leibovich describes a Washington inhabited by a “permanent feudal class,” a phrase he attributes to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK):
“It’s not Democrats. It’s not Republicans, it’s just a class.”
He describes it this way:
“Journalists are part of it. Lobbyists are part of it. Hangers-on and wannabes are part of it. This class, like every other ruling class, has one primary aim toward which all efforts strive: staying in power by any means necessary.”
Rather than devoting themselves to the political objectives they were elected to pursue, the only goals of the men and women described by Leibovich are fame, power, money, and being at the center of whatever is happening. In this view, today’s partisan gridlock has become just another narrative playing out in the spectacle of politics, another way for the ruling class to generate fame and wealth through endless talk-show appearances and speaking engagements.
“To cover Washington allows you to live in the very, very wide gap between what the actual truth is, and how people are trying to manipulate the truth. They speak in the language of spin, obsequiousness, obfuscation.”
What surprised Leibovich most, he says, is that no one has challenged his underlying premise. Rather than taking him to task for exposing them, the players in the book love the publicity:
“I’ve gotten e-mails from people who are not portrayed well in the book, former senators, former congressmen, people who have been here a long time, who are sending me far more humble e-mails, than I would have expected. I was hoping, or expecting, that someone would make some kind of argument for why it’s not as bad as I say, or why there’s more nobility than I describe, or why I’m not such a bad guy, not me personally, but why Senator X who’s now Lobbyist X is now multi-zillionaire X. For all the noise there’s been about the book, I’ve been much more stunned by the silence from the sectors that should have their backs up a little bit.”
In the mid-1950s, there were 5,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. Now, there are more than 12,000, and many thousands more who have reclassified themselves as “consultants.”
Untold numbers are former members of Congress, former congressional staff members, and White House officials. They spend as much as $3.5 billion annually. The amount they manage to divert from the government’s $3.5 trillion annual budget makes their own expenditure seem trivial.
Terry McAuliffe, now Governor of Virginia, was, at the time he was running for office, being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security, for using political influence to gain visas for foreign investors in a company with ties to both McAuliffe and Hillary Clinton’s brother, Anthony Rodham. And Hillary Clinton’s long-time aide Huma Abedin, wife of disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, was discovered by Politico to have taken on other clients, including Tenck, a “global advisory firm,” founded by former Clinton aide Doug Brand, while she was being paid as a consultant to the State Department. This, it seems, is how our permanent, bipartisan political class conducts itself.
Perhaps someday, when more Americans come to understand how Washington’s permanent political class really works, we can move beyond the partisan rhetoric of cable television and talk radio and confront the real problems we face. That day, unfortunately, seems to be in the distant future. But Mark Leibovich has performed a notable service in pointing us in the right direction.