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Hangin' with the houseboyz.

Think the guys you elected are dangerous? Meet the arrogant young staffers running the show . . .

Pity the book(*1) that comes out in May 1992 with the subtitle Blowing the Lid Off Congress. Does any Congress with a national approval rating of 17 percent and up to its neck in a check-kiting scandal have a lid left over its head? Squalid and appalling as Jackley's revelations are, this deft account of the grosser realities in democracy's sausage works, based on the author's 12 years as a congressional staffer, or "Hill rat" as they call themselves, may no longer have the ability to dismay. The collective voice being raised these days is that of Casablanca's Captain Renaud, shocked--shocked!--to learn that congressmen are perkmongers and slobs when it comes to balancing their own checkbooks, never mind that they've overdrawn the nation's by $4 trillion in the last 12 years. The more's the pity, because this is an important book deserving a wide audience.

Touted as the Liar's Poker of Capitol Hill, Jackley's account does live up to the publisher's flackery. It entertains as it damns. The author grew up as a Special Forces brat, which equipped him, at least at first, with the temperament and moxie to take his hill. His eventual A-Funny-Thing-Happened-On-The-Way-To-Damascus moment came when his second child nearly died in infancy. The experience concentrated his mind. Suddenly his mighty press secretarial labors on behalf of his boss, Texas Democratic Congressman Ronald Coleman, a man with the ethics and moral courage of a hookworm--and apologies to hookworms everywhere--fell into the proper perspective. And thus he came to burn his bridges with a vengeance.

Like the mini-masters of the universe portrayed by Michael Lewis in his staff-level expose of Salomon Brothers, the Hill rats Jackley chronicles learn self-importance at a very callow age, usually right out of college. At one point, Jackley explains to a fellow Appropriations Committee rat that the title of Lewis' book derived from Salomon big-wig John Gutfreund's dare to a colleague to play a single hand of the game for a million dollars. The staffer snorts, "A mil? One lousy mil? I can do ten mil with report language and not even have to ask the chairman." Jackley notes, "That may or may not have been true, but his disdain was palpable." He quotes another rodent: "Lord Acton was only half right. Power might corrupt, but absolute power is a blast."

Up on the Hill, quotations from classical antiquity are just palimpsests for graffiti. Parliamentarian Edmund Burke's lofty admonition to the electorate in 1774, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion," is hootingly dismissed by a Democratic committee chairman: "Burke got his ass sent packing home." A quote from our own classical past is inverted to become the Hill rat's credo: "Ask not what your member can do for the issue, but rather, what the issue can do for your member."

There, in a way, you have it all, the sum teleology of Capitol Hill: self-preservation. (I know, I know, you're shocked--shocked--to hear it.) But mammon is in the details, and the details are delicious. Jackley makes us witnesses to wonderful sights: Coleman conniving to get press mileage out of a devasting Mexico City earthquake; cowering under his blankets at home--literally--during the invasion of Panama so he won't have to make a statement by voting; scheming to vote against a good bill that he actually favors, once he's assured that it is going down to defeat. My personal favorite--and who knows, perhaps it will also appeal to the Internal Revenue Service--is when he angrily demands an interest-free loan to cover his overdraft at--you guessed it--the House bank, and then doesn't report the free interest to the IRS. A scoundrel, you say? Not to the voters of Texas's 16th district, who have reelected him time after time--the last two, unopposed. Profiles in Courage this ain't.

How could Coleman get away with all this? Brace yourself for another shocker: largely by ingratiating himself with the now deposed and disgraced speaker of the House, Jim Wright. This got him a seat on the all-powerful Appropriations Committee, from which all pork flows. Representative Coleman is nothing if not representative. He does exactly what his constituents want him to--namely, steal from the voters of other districts. Rep. Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, since 1977 the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, stated this iron law of politics in an admirably candid moment when he said, "All anyone ever wants is a special advantage over the next fellow. Understand that, and you've understood the intent of every law ever passed."

All the gentleman from El Paso asks in return from his constituents--aside from interest-free loans and free plants from the Botanical Gardens--is permanence. Something about being a congressman must have changed for the better in 200 years--perhaps the food. In 1790, only about half of House members ran for reelection. In 1988, 94 percent did. And they did well. Ninety-eight percent of them got reelected. In 1990, the reelection figure plunged to 96 percent. Amidst the current hullabaloo over kited checks and legislative gridlock, that percentage may change in 1992, but after reading this book, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. "Let's face it," gloats one Republican member, "you have to be a bozo to lose this job."

One reason, of course, is money. Jackley refers to the "holy trinity of PACs, honoraria, and campaign contributions," though it escapes me what's so holy about them. He cites Common Cause's figure that in 1988, PACs gave $82 million to incumbents and a mere $9 million to challengers. PACs follow a congressman's "numbers"--that is, his approval ratings back home--the way advertisers follow a TV show's ratings.

The Numbers run everthing. . . . [C ampaign

contributions follow Numbers. PACs and other

handicappers keep lists of every congressional

race in the country . . . PACs do not place

bets--campaign contributions--on long shots.

They back winners who can produce for them.

. . . A prime purpose of political polls is not only

to handicap the horses, but to point moneymen

in the right direction. So if the Numbers turn out

well, a member will shop around the results to

the PACs to prove he is still a blue-chip investment.

Even the phraseology is out of Liar's Poker. Remember too that the "definition of honesty in politics is staying bought once you're bought." Some modern-day Dick Tuck ought to come along and plant a giant HOUSE FOR SALE sign in front of the dome.

All-pork franks

Then there's good old "Uncle Frank," the rich relative who never says no to free stamps. The abuses of Congress' franked-mail privileges are old news by now, but Jackley provides some fresh gum to chew on. In 1984, preparing for the reelection, "[W]e had 680,000 computer-targeted letters, postcards, and newsletters in the works." Bear in mind that according to the 1990 census, El Paso County still had a population of only 592,000. "Postage alone for these taxpayer-funded mailings was more than $100,000--nearly half of the $212,892 our Republican opponent would spend for his entire campaign."

Peanuts! In 1989, Jackley and Coleman's chief of staff, Paul Rogers, a petty, humorless despot who regarded himself as far smarter than his boss and therefore the real congressman--a totally common phenom, apparently--put together a plan to mail out two million pieces of Coleman self-aggrandizement. Nineteen eighty-nine was not even an election year, but by then "we had already sent over one million pieces of mail during the year at a cost of over $200,000 to the taxpayer." Setting aside its dubious merits, you've gotta love the symbolism of the fact that "[T]he only franked mailing ever officially turned down by a formal vote of the entire House of Representatives was the one to mail a copy of the U.S. Constitution to every household in America."

The media, which have been playing the perk scandals for all they're worth after largely ignoring the bigger questions, emerge here as a kind of enabler to all these fiscal drunks. They have a co-dependent relationship going, for if there's one thing dearer to a congressman's heart than his numbers, it's his press coverage.

Most congressmen are press hogs. It is the nature

of their egos as well as of their business.

They live and die by their coverage; the quickest

way to perish, as they say on the Hill, is to walk

between the voracious Rep. Ron Wyden and a

television camera.

Jackley relates a remarkable incident from 1983, when he got a call from a local television producer in El Paso who told him that a friend who works as an Army trauma specialist at Fort Bliss--one of the prime beneficiaries of Coleman's pork-dispensing--had just come back from a supersecret mission in El Salvador, where he was summoned to treat "American dead and wounded--none of them," the producer relates, "in regular uniforms. He says CIA and maybe some military. What happened was that the FMLN had ambushed the government's elite Atlacatl Battalion and wasted a bunch of our guys along with the Salvadorans."

The United States, you'll recall, was not technically supposed to be fighting in El Salvador, just advising. Jackley took this lurid bit of information to Rogers, the control-freak chief of staff. Rogers reported back to Jackley that Coleman's reaction to the possibility that U.S. personnel were engaged in combat abroad in violation of the law was: "We're not in the story, are we?" Rogers then told Jackley to drop it. Rogers would take it from there. So what did Coleman and his Man Friday do? They directed a routine query to the U.S. Army, which told them, Oh no sir, nothing like that around here.

Jackley was left to assume that his producer-friend's source was a wacko, until a few days later, when he was reading over the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) report, monitoring media reports from around the world.

I turned to the El Salvador section and froze.

FBIS reported intercepting and transcribing a

transmission from Radio Venceremos, the voice

of the FMLN insurgency, that reported a victory

in an ambush of the Atlacatl Battalion. The trauma specialist's account of the engagement had been verified.

Did Jackley call his producer friend in El Paso to tell him? Not! Did the producer follow up on his own? Not! But hadn't he done his civic duty by reporting this amazing, red-hot tip to his congressman's press flunkey? Did Jackley take the FBIS report to his superiors? No! What did he do? "I sighed. Oh well. I had already learned to keep score, but I couldn't tell if this one was a run, a hit, or an error. Later in the year and on steadier political ground, Coleman did blister Reagan on Central America." His Damascus moment was still years off. And absolute power was still too much of a blast to mess with.

Profiles in scourge

Solutions, anyone? Let's get Congress to outlaw PAC money. Right. Next, we'll get them to stop leaning on that magic Pitney Bowes machine. Easy enough. As for the perks--the Codels (congressional delegations--read "PX shopping spress"), free airport parking, private ambulances--so what? Which is doing the nation more harm? A $4 trillion deficit, or Ron Coleman's parking space at National Airport?

To Jackley, the only way to sweep these Augean stables is with a grass-roots broom. But he doesn't say how that's going to be possible, exactly. And that's the whopping conundrum at the heart of the congressional beast: As P.J. O'Rourke has pointed out in his own Pogo shtick on Washington, Parliament of Whores, the problem is that, in a democracy, the whores are us. If Congress has become a house of ill repute, it didn't get that way by accident; as Marlene Dietrich once put, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."

(*1) Hill Rat: Blowing the Lid Off Congress, John L. Jackley. Regnery Gateway, $21.95.
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Title Annotation:congressional staffers
Author:Buckley, Christopher
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:2017
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