Working in Washington
If Barack Obama is going to secure the passage of a sweeping progressive agenda, including serious health care reform, a cap and trade program, some huge new infrastructure projects, and (very possibly) big new job creation programs if unemployment, as seems likely, remains very high, then the political culture of Washington will have to undergo some significant changes. The media can help provoke such changes by bringing current practices to light. I don't spend much time listening to cable news (although I do try to catch a little talk radio every day, just to hear what's happening in the Republicanosphere), but I fortunately discovered this clip, in which Rachel Maddow discusses the financial status of Congressman Joe Ross or Arkansas at some length, the other day. Maddow is emerging as the Drew Pearson of our time, although her sources are not nearly as good as yet, and the story explained why Ross, a prominent Blue Dog Democrat, is so opposed to the public health care option. Ross owned a pharmacy in his home town, and two years ago, he sold the building and the right to operate the pharmacy to USA Drug, a drugstore chain, for a price of almost half a million, and half a million more made up of various rights fees and a consulting contract that his wife signed with them as well. This is, I have no doubt, not a unique situation, and we must hope that in today's anarchic media, popular outlets will become more and more adept at bringing such arrangements to light. (For more on the source of Representative Ross's views, look here--a very interesting site on southern politics.)
Thirty years ago I heard Barney Frank, who was just beginning his political career as a Massachusetts state legislator, talk about the problem of campaign money in politics. The salary of the Governor of Massachusetts, he noted, was about $50,000 (actually might have been even less), while a gubernatorial campaign cost about half a million. "Why don't we pay for the campaign and let corporations pay his salary?" he asked. "We'd have a bigger piece of him!" Things, of course, have gotten much worse since then--campaigns have gotten more expensive and it looks very likely that the Supreme Court is about to strike down the most recent bipartisan attempt to curtail special interest spending. Today, however, I'd like to discuss a different kind of problem in our politics today--one involving the career paths of politicians.
Let's imagine that you are a man, or woman, who became interested in public policy early in life. Whatever your particular views, you enjoy the nuts and bolts of the American system, and your ego is healthy enough (or should I say unhealthy enough?) to want to feel that you are having an important impact. Coming to Washington at a young age, you are seduced by the beauty of its historic buildings and its political buzz--although if you have arrived in the last forty years you have also been intimidated by the enormous cost of living there without a very long commute. Eventually you discover that there are two ways in which you become a mover and shaker.
In option one, you will spend your days being led around by your handlers, rather like a prize bull, listening to the widest possible variety of outraged or ardent Americans pushing their particular cause. While you will enjoy some of these encounters far more than others, you will have to be unvaryingly polite. You will fly to and from some other part of the country on almost every weekend, where your days will be similar to those spent in Washington during the week, except that you will spend more time traveling. Your finances will be known in every detail to the public. You will spend a great deal of time raising money. You will depend almost entirely on subordinates to provide you with actual knowledge about legislation in which you are interested. If you are a Republican, you will learn that any deviation from the party line--increasingly enforced by ignorant demagogues broadcasting for hours every day--is likely to be punished by the loss of your job. It is no wonder, obviously, that such a life might make a roll in the hay with a more or less anonymous member of the opposite sex appealing, but should such become known, your career will be at an end.
Now let's look at option 2. In this case you will live in Washington full time, going out of town only for working vacations in expensive resorts. Your salary will be private, and at least ten times as much as in option 1. Rather than having to raise money, you will help dispense it. You'll live in a prime Washington location. You will have all the time you need not only to study the details of legislation in which you are interested, but also to help draft it. You won't have to see anyone that you don't want to see, and the public will probably have no idea that you exist. But you will see your work reflected in dozens of pieces of legislation of tremendous import to millions of Americans. You will probably have to give up any ideas that you cherished in your youth about the public good--but at least, in comparison to option one, you won't have to pretend that you haven't given them up.
The job of option one, in today's America, is that of an elected Senator or Representative. The job of option 2 is that of a lobbyist. And can anyone be surprised that option 1 has become a stepping stone to option 2, rather than the reverse? Thus, two former leaders of the Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives--Dick Gephardt and Dick Armey--are now busily plying their trade as lobbyists. Gephardt, who actually ran for President on a platform of universal health care coverage, now opposes it. Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader who would have become Health and Human Services Secretary but for some financial indiscretions, is also working very hard for the health care industry. Bob Dole has had a remunerative post-Senatorial career. In this respect as in so many others, Ted Kennedy looks like the last of a dying breed, the legislator who (like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, Emmanuel Cellar, and so many others from the past) simply can't imagine being anything else. And it is obviously no coincidence that his idealism was backed by inherited wealth, and that he faced only one serious challenge in 46 years in the Senate.
In her report on Representative Ross, Maddow noted that liberal Democrats are organizing a primary campaign against him. Democrats showed in 2008 that they could out-organized the Republicans nationwide and win the Presidency fairly handily by appealing to the interests of less well-off Americans. Delivering for those Americans, however, is turning out to be much, much harder. It will require the same kind of organization on a sustained basis. It will require the courage to turn down "compromise" legislation which will not, in fact, improve the lives of ordinary Americans at all, like the Baucus health care bill. And it will require time, which the President's rhetorical skills will have to buy. I refuse to believe that any of this is impossible, but it will be extremely difficult.
The modern United States is largely the creation of two bursts of legislative activity--the first beginning in 1933 and ending around 1945 with the GI Bill, and the second in 1964-5. The first was possible because of the catastrophic situation into which we had fallen--far worse, we must keep in mind, than what we face right now--and the second owed a great deal to an outpouring of grief over the death of John F. Kennedy, an opportunity which Lyndon Johnson seized to pass Medicare, two civil rights bills, and much more. The present moment can't be compared to either of those. Any victories over the next year will be dearly won, through hard-fought battles. If in fact the Democrats can actually gain seats at the next election--and perhaps even replace a few Blue Dogs like Congressman Ross with genuine progressives--the log jam could begin to break during the next two years. That is an optimistic scenario, but not, I think, an impossible one.