Washington's nice problem.
Of course, Washington was thought to be a swamp of villains and miscreants even before Harry Truman famously declared that "If you want a friend in Washington, bring a dog," and that reputation endures today. Where else would a swell guy like former chief of staff Mack McLarty - nicknamed "the Nice" - get demoted and then have to read in The New Yorker that "some used his moniker in a denigrating way; to them his niceness proved his failure of assimilation." The implication was not only that McLarty needed to be a far tougher gatekeeper for the president, but that around these parts, nice people don't fit in. Phil Gramm, whom no one has ever accused of being too nice, is fond of saying that he is doing the "Lord's work in the Devil's city."
The Devil's city? Granted, presidents - especially the current president - tend to get roughed up in Washington, and occasionally a lawmaker will go after a colleague in the House or Senate. But in general there's surprisingly little nastiness here. Even Congress is tame compared to the acrimony in, say, Japan's Diet, where legislators often punch each other in the face. No, the city's power strata - legislators, journalists, administration officials - are all in fairly high spirits. The truth is, Washington is a nice town filled with nice people being nice to each other. This explains why so few leave. This also explains how they stay.
Most of Washington's players come to town for a specific job. Politicians get elected to work on behalf of certain constituents political appointees arrive because they have managed to land a position in the government, and countless aides come to assist these people. These jobs are not lifelong positions. Much of official Washington, therefore, is always facing the prospect of looking elsewhere for work - or going home.
But once you're here, it's not easy to go home. You settle in, the kids are in school, you buy a house. And why would you want to leave? The town affords folks the chance to work on important issues with important people; it's hard to go back to the farm after you've seen the Department of Agriculture. Of course, once you've been here a while, you have an expertise and a set of contacts that make you marketable, and the Washington market can be very lucrative. Those who parlay their public service expertise and contacts into private practice see their salaries soar. Consequently, those who are forced to leave - either because they lost an election or weren't reappointed - are usually plotting to come back. Everyone else is working hard to make sure they don't have to leave at all.
But how do you stay, given that most jobs in Washington last only a few years? There's just one answer, son. You've got to network for dear life - and fast. That means making contacts, fattening your Rolodex, and attracting allies. If you're a political appointee at say, the Department of Labor, you'll want to be friendly to anyone you meet professionally: union leaders, interest groups, lobbyists, and your fellow bureaucrats. These are the people who are most likely to help you find another job or offer you one outright. And you can be helpful to them as well, either through your work at Labor now, or as a contact in whatever you end up doing next. Together, you'll create a sort of mutual survival network.
Because everyone here needs a survival network, the place is suffused with a sense of "We're all in this together." Not that all relationships in Washington are fake. On the contrary, people tend to empathize with those who help them survive or raise their profile; sometimes the bonds of friendship here are very real. When Rep. Dan Rostenkowski was indicted on no less than 17 charges of defrauding the public, one sensed that Post columnist David Broder, Washington's grandfatherly voice of reason, meant it when he said he was sorry to see Rosty deposed.
Couldn't all this chumminess and respect just lend the nation's capital an air of pleasant, small-town warmth? Well, it could, but since it's the seat of the federal government, the sense of mutual enterprise here can have important implications for politics as well. If virtually everyone you come across is a would-be ally, then you will be averse to criticizing anyone too loudly, and you'll steer away from reforms that might rattle present or future friends. This creates an insularity and resistance to change that makes anything that rocks the boat - loud dissent, ideological passion - rare. The problem is that the boat is not always heading in the right direction, and often it is simply operating in a way that enriches those on board rather than makes sense for the rest of us.
To get a sense of how toxic Washington niceness can be, let's look at three different facets of the same problem. First, how survival networking can lead to bad policy; then, how it can lead to wasted millions in taxpayer dollars; and finally, how it can turn around even those politicians who come to town looking to buck the system.
A Toast to the Chairman
Watching Clinton juke and Dole jibe on TV, it may look as though wrangling and partisan disputes are all that ail the cause of health reform. But while politicians look for an answer for the issue's thorniest question - how to pay for universal coverage - Washington's niceness has helped to keep an obvious source of revenue off the table.
By any reasonable measure, taxes on booze are at a historic low, about 37 percent in real dollars of what they were after the last major tax increase, which, by the way, occurred in 1951. Back then, alcohol taxes were 5 percent of all federal revenues; today they are roughly one-half of 1 percent. Moreover, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, between 25 to 40 percent of bed space in hospitals is given over to alcohol-related disorders, at a price to the public and our health care system of something close to $100 billion dollars each year.
Add to all this polling results which show that Americans think taxing the alcohol industry is a great way to help pay for universal health coverage. Last February, a USA Today poll found that 85 percent favor higher taxes on alcohol to finance health reform, two percent more than said the same thing about tobacco. To summarize, here's an industry that is undertaxed, that costs the health care system a ton of money, and that a huge majority of us would like to see pitch in for health care reform. A fat and legitimate target for Bill and Hillary, wouldn't you say?
As it turns out, no. Clinton quietly let the alcohol industry off the hook way back in September when he decided to drop it from the list of sin tax increases he would seek from Congress. What happened? In short, Clinton decided to avoid a fight he felt he would probably lose. "You can't get into this issue," one of his aides told The Washington Post at the time. "It will just spin around and you'll never win." Even the often less conciliatory first lady felt that a liquor tax increase was simply not possible.
Sadly, the Clintons were probably right. The liquor lobby is one of the richest, most powerful, and best connected in town, and fighting it could have cost the administration more political capital than it could spare. The lobby has friends throughout Washington and a critical ally in Dan Rostenkowski, former chairman of the committee through which any alcohol tax would have had to pass. Rostenkowski provided some valuable help to the booze industry when he helped steer Clinton away from any alcohol taxes by telling him that if one type of alcohol were taxed, all three - beer, wine, and spirits - would have to be taxed, a neat shorthand for "I'm on your side, Chief, but this will be an awful brawl."
If an alcohol tax hike is clearly overdue and obviously popular with Americans, why would Rosty side with the alcohol industry? Money is part of the explanation. The ex-chairman received thousands in alcohol PAC dollars during his years in office. But his water-carrying for the alcohol industry also doubled nicely as a good deed for someone who is both an old ally and a very nice guy.
Meet Raymond McGrath. A Republican elected from New York's 5th district in 1980, he spent 12 years in the House of Representatives, the last eight of which he was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. In 1991, McGrath was sitting on a runway at LaGuardia Airport trying to get back to D.C. for his child's third birthday party when a plane on another runway landed and blew a tire, shutting down the airport for eight hours. "I figured no matter how hard I tried, I wasn't going to be a good father if I stayed in the House," says McGrath.
The same day he announced his retirement, job offers from the city's most successful lobbying outfits lit up his phones. "A lot of people were gracious enough to call hours after the announcement," says McGrath. "They asked me |Do you have something lined up? Let us talk to you.' I soon had half a dozen very good offers." McGrath mulled over a few options and thought about starting his own firm, but decided against it because, as he says, he "didn't want to steal clients from my friends." He was most attracted to a job that gave him the chance to run something. In April 1991, he became the president of the Beer Institute.
It may sound like a lab for testing six packs, but the Beer Institute is actually the lobbying arm of the beer industry. Located in a sleek high-rise a quick car ride from the Capitol, the Institute's offices feature a collection of Norman Rockwell-style paintings of idealized scenes - dad meeting the boyfriend, twenty somethings idling by the pool, a beach cookout. The twist is that nearly everyone in the paintings is drinking a beer.
Raymond McGrath is tall, distinguished-looking, and 52 years old. With his fine gray hair, silver-rimmed glasses, and unaffected charm, he looks so much like a politician that he could be an actor playing one. "Coffee, tea, juice . . . beer?" he asks me with a grin early one morning in July. Sitting in his large corner office, he smiles easily as he explains why he's at the Beer Institute.
"I came here because I had a young family and I was neglecting them," he says. "I started getting the guilts about traveling to New York for weekends and I knew that if I stayed in the House, I'd leave feet first. When I told my wife that I wasn't running, she was so happy she said she was going to throw up."
In the wake of the decision, a local newspaper ran an editorial praising his reason for retiring and calling McGrath "Father of the Year." His new job allows him to spend a lot more time with his wife and three children, one of whom has Attention Deficit Disorder. He's a better provider these days as well. He declined to specify how much he makes, but his predecessor's salary was $217,000 in 1993.
How does he earn that money? His value to his present employers, he says, is simply that he knows the players on the Ways and Means Committee.
"I know where their sensitivities are, things to avoid," he says. "You want to avoid putting a member in a position where he has to oppose you and I know which members can't allow certain things. But you have to have been there and know that history to know where the opposition is going to come."
For his first year on the job, he was barred from going to the Hill by new ethics laws, but even though it's now perfectly legal for him to lobby his former colleagues face to face in their offices, he says he rarely visits the House.
"I have a whole bunch of people who do that," he tells me. "I send letters, once in a while I pick up a phone. I've seen the former chairmen occasionally on a social basis, and obviously I see the other guys at events."
Spend a little time with Raymond McGrath and you wish you could see him at events, too. Meeting the man puts an appealing and human face on what is arguably a greedy lobby financed by huge, not-so-appealing corporations. He's an open, friendly, family-oriented guy - Father of the Year, for heaven's sake - unpretentious and plain spoken. He's so damn nice you want to buy him a beer. And so, apparently, does everyone else. McGrath's office is littered with memorabilia from a life in politics, including a photograph of him sharing a tall one with former House pasha Silvio Conte; there he is arm in arm with Tip O'Neill; here he is posing with his family and Ronald Reagan.
And on the wall, above a slew of Chamber of Commerce plaques, is a framed shot of McGrath hugging the not-yet-indicted Dan Rostenkowski. Under the picture, Rosty scribbled a tribute to McGrath for some valuable help in 1986: "I had no better friend on the tax bill (on your side of the aisle)." And then, camaraderie getting the better of the chairman's spelling, "Your a pal!"
Of course, Raymond McGrath and his pal Rostenkowski didn't single-handedly kill the alcohol sin tax. The industry's own survival network is vast and pours dollars into congressional coffers far and wide. One of its power centers, St. Louis, Missouri, headquarters of Anheuser-Busch, is in the home district of House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt.
But McGrath and Rostenkowski did their share of the work. And why not? Put yourself in the chairman's place. Pulling on one side are polls and abstract numbers presented by crusading non-profiteers you've never met, from places with names like the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Pulling the other way is a guy who has been through some battles with you, a war buddy who did you a good turn in the trenches some years ago. He was the one standing next to you as Reagan signed the '86 tax bill into law, the two of you grinning like fishermen beside a bluefish in a photograph seen around the country. He's also a jewel of a guy, just trying to earn a living, just trying to spend more time with his kids. And you know the wife and she's lovely too, and the alcohol industry has been awful good to you at campaign time and pretty soon you hear yourself saying, "I'm with you, Chief, but this will be an awful brawl."
Small wonder that when Rostenkowski was indicted on fraud charges, the donors to his defense fund read like the catering list at the world drinking Olympics: Anheuser-Busch, E&J Gallo Winery, Wine Merchants Ltd., Wine and Spirit Wholesalers. Prominent among those who made contributions as individuals, naturally, was Mr. Raymond McGrath.
A Town Full of Mavericks
For most legislators, the process of learning to get along with everybody begins well before they decide to retire. New arrivals quickly learn that they have an excellent reason to be nice to just everyone. Let's start with the lobbyists. Since a ton of money is needed to run for office, congressmen are survival networking for dollars almost immediately. The trick is making it seem as though the desperately needed rewards of PAC money and donations are not in any way connected to any particular actions for any particular monied interest.
Lobbyists, nice folks that they are, happily do their part. In the waltz between them and a lawmaker, they can never seem to be leading the dance, offering what might look like a fee for service. During the student loan debate, the Consumer Bank Association handed out a 13-point pamphlet with the dos and don'ts of lobbying, a primer for a group of bankers who'd come to town to chat with their legislators. The 13th point closed with a revealing suggestion: "Another way to express thanks is with a monetary donation at election time. However, such a donation should always be thought of as a thank-you gift, never as buying some future political favor."
If you're a legislator, there are also plenty of reasons to be pleasant to your colleagues. Any one of them could enhance your prestige by signing onto a bill you've drafted, or allowing you to join his committee, or providing help in winning a leadership role you want. There's nothing inherently wrong with what is often little more than simple human decency, but in Congress, as elsewhere in town, simple decency can have dire consequences.
What gets lost in all this fellow-feeling is a role so slighted by lawmakers that few people even realize it's part of their job - namely, overseeing the bureaucracy. Performing tough oversight is a way to lose friends fast. If you're a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and you learn that $53 million is being spent on some useless pilot program in Colorado, you face a quandary. Blowing the whistle could save Americans everywhere some money, but it runs the risk of infuriating Rep. Tentermer from that Denver district where the program runs, a program Tentermer proudly unveiled at a news conference last year. Ending that program would embarrass your distinguished colleague; worse, it would put him in a less than sympathetic mood when you next go looking for allies for programs and bills that you think are worthwhile. And anyway, you like Tentermer.
And what if you're one of the 40 percent of congressmen who come back to lobby the Hill once you leave? The more friends you had while in office, the more clients you can help. Letting the Denver program slide by means keeping up a friendship that, sooner or later, could be extremely valuable. Again, the price of upsetting business as usual is high, and its benefits - in terms of survival, in terms of staying in Washington - hard to see.
Hence, the relationship between Congress and agencies is rarely adversarial; in fact, the two usually get on with symbiotic smoothness. For legislators, being friendly with top-level bureaucrats is good politics. If, for instance, you're from Wisconsin, a big milk-producing state, it behooves you to angle for a spot on the Agriculture Committee and then hob nob the agency's top officials. That way, when the dairy farmers (or their PAC) come to town with a problem, you know exactly who can solve it. Those officials will be happy to oblige. Even though many of them are tenured, Congress can cut their budget, a move which could either end promotion pay raises or compel the agency to fire staffers. This fear has the effect of forcing bureaucrats to be receptive to lobbyists and businessmen, any of whom could go to a legislator and register a complaint.
Niceness bedevils the bureaucracy in other ways. Much of the agencies' work these days is overseeing private contractors - close to 90 percent of the Department of Energy's business, for instance, is farmed out. But minus rigor and real competition for the contract every few years, private firms naturally tend to cut corners to enhance their bottom line. For many bureaucrats, however, playing the heavy isn't easy because often the people they're supposed to lean on work alongside them, become their friends, and could offer them a job someday. "You develop a cozy relationship because they're sitting right next to you," says Carolyn Ban, a former manager at the Department of Personnel and Management. "In a sense you want to have good working relations. But there can be great harm when that leads to a bias for the contractor for the wrong reasons, like wanting to feather your nest."
This problem is most acute where the money in the private sector is most abundant: the Department of Defense. Pentagon bureaucrats are tasked with ensuring that weapons systems get built on time, and, ideally, function as advertised. But for the military's overseers there is a temptation. The private companies that make weapons are constantly looking for a few good men - Pentagon officials who know "the Building" and can help business with the right contacts in the military. Defense contractors frequently can offer double the government's money, so it's not unusual for milicrats to marshal a program through the DoD and Congress and then join the staff of the program's defense contractor shortly thereafter.
"It's become an accepted career path in the Pentagon," says Jim Burton, a retired Air Force colonel and author of The Pentagon Wars. "If you have been supportive of a program, you can almost count on the nice man with the money bags showing up and asking you to join the company."
That's what happened in the case of the Maverick missile, an anti-tank weapon purchased by the Air Force in the early eighties. If there had been an honest evaluation of the Maverick, it would never have been built. But thanks to some helpful program managers in the Pentagon, several of the operational tests meant to determine whether the missile would work were rigged. (The missile failed real tests, mistaking, at one point, a franks and beans cookout in the desert for a tank.) Nonetheless, thousands of Mavericks were built at a cost of $123,000 per copy. Less than six months after the missile cleared its last production hurdle, three of the top Pentagon officials responsible for the program left to join Hughes Aircraft Company, the company that built it.
The town's nice ethos isn't well known to Beltway outsiders because the business of survival networking is almost always private; it happens on the phone, in lunches, at meetings, fundraisers, social gatherings on junkets, and at dinner parties. For a sense of how it dims the brightest of reforming spirits, let's follow one man's Washington-style transformation from progressive lawmaker to big-dollar rainmaker.
Toby Moffet arrived in D.C. at the tender age of 30 as a representative from Connecticut, part of the crusading class of 1974. He was one of the higher-profile "Watergate babies," a group of young legislators who had won their seats by running against the Beltway in the wake of Richard Nixon's resignation. A former Nader protege, Moffet's politics as a congressman were unabashedly progressive, especially on energy issues. But he was affable, hard-working, and continued his predecessors' emphasis on strong constituent service. His colleagues in Washington as well as his constituents at home liked him. He handily won reelection three times.
When Moffet twice sought a wider stage, however, he twice came up short, losing in bids for the Senate in '82 and the governor's job in '86. He worked in local television for a while, and ran and lost two more races. Then the Fox network offered him the leading role in a pilot show which featured Moffet surprising local heroes and community activists with checks for up to $25,000. They shot six episodes, but Fox never aired any of them. In 1992, the pilot was shelved and Moffet was unemployed.
He found work in a place that few familiar with his political career would ever have imagined: a Washington lobbying outfit. Today, he runs what is genteelly called the "consulting" arm of a well-established law firm in town, a blue chip mouthful called Wunder, Diefenderfer, Cannon & Thelen. Now 50 years old, Moffet's thatch of dark hair is gray on the sides, but he is still bounding with energy and he retains the warm, easy manner that made him popular even among Republicans in Connecticut. Sitting in the conference room at Wunder, Diefenderfer, his tie loosened and a cup of coffee in one hand, he candidly explained how a man who started off as a Nader Raider and anti-Washington politician has ended up earning six figures in the cradle of the capital's establishment.
"When the Fox pilot was dropped, I was out of money and still paying off debts from the '86 campaign in a Connecticut economy that was going down the tubes fast. So I said to my wife, |We're out of here.' She said, |What do you mean?' I said We're moving to Washington. That's a town where I know the most people, I know how to do things, I know how to solve problems.'"
Fortunately for Moffet, many of his old Washington friends were now working "downtown," D.C.'s influence- and access-peddling zone, and they were happy to meet him again. One pal, Vickie Reggie - now Vickie Kennedy, Teddy's wife - threw a dinner party on Moffet's behalf and invited a Who's Who of the city's best-connected Democrat lobbyists. The next day, Moffet went to talk business with the previous evening's dinner guests.
"I saw Steve Engleberg, who was Ferraro's person, and I had known in Mondale's office back in those years. Then I had a two-hour session with Howard Paster [who soon would become Clinton's congressional liaison and then leave after a year for a top job at Hill & Knowl-ton]. Howard has always been a pal from the days he was lobbying for the United Auto Workers and I was on the Hill, and he was just fabulous, telling me, |Here's what you have to do.' Then I had a good session with Frank [Mankiewicz, whom Moffet knew through his work on behalf of Ted Kennedy's bid for president in 1980] and he had me sit with Gary Hummel who was over there who I knew from Tip O'Neill days. And I had a good session with Anne [Wexler, whom Moffet knew from Connecticut politics]. Anyway, they said |Come over and be a consultant.'"
He signed up at the Wexler Group. He didn't have to work on any issues that he found unsavory, and in fact passed on a chance to lobby an energy-related bill about which he and Wexler disagreed. His only real complaint, in fact, was the money - chiefly that he wasn't paid enough of it.
"At Wexler, I'd make a phone call to a particular member, directly, maybe, at home let's say, on a critical thing and get some feedback or information that's worth millions of dollars to somebody and they say, |OK, fine, you can bill us two hours at $300 an hour.' It didn't take long to figure out that I needed to be my own boss and price things the way I wanted to price them."
Moffet soon left for Wunder, Diefenderfer and today his major clients include the government of Angola, Coopers & Lybrand, and the big six accounting firms. He keeps his hand in progressive issues by working with a group fighting to keep Disney's America theme park out of Virginia, and has several pro bono clients.
For anyone who thinks that plying connections must be humiliating work, Moffet's experience is corrective. Often he doesn't need to say anything to former colleagues, let alone supplicate before them. Another dinner party demonstrates why. Shortly after the '92 elections, Moffet invited a table full of buddies who'd just lost campaigns, including Tom Downey, Pete Kostemeyer, and Les AuCoin, who had just been edged out by Bob Packwood.
"We started with four bottles of wine, and I cooked some pasta and these were not big drinkers, but after about three hours I was borrowing wine from my neighbors, they were drinking so much. And Les AuCoin, he was trying to decide what he was going to do, and he said, |I don't know how you do what you do, I just can't imagine doing it,' you know, lobbying members. I said, |Well, I don't know, I don't do anything I don't want to do.' And he said, |You've never lobbied me, I guess.' I said, |Excuse me? You know this British Columbia timber issue?' He said, |Yeah.' I said, |The one where we have all the environmental groups on our side?' He said, |Yeah.' I said, |You're the champion, right? Well, That's my client.' He said, |I didn't even know you were involved.' I said, |That's right. I never talk to you about it because you're doing the right thing and I'm working with your staff and they know that I know you.'"
Moffet's journey from firebrand to the ranks of the well-heeled is not unusual, though his voyage covered more ideological ground than most. "Frankly, my views have been shaped as I've gone along. I have a much better appreciation for how markets work and market-driven forces as opposed to regulatory." But he also realizes that his approach as a legislator would be a liability now. "When I was a congressman, I was an advocate. We fought the utility companies, and that was the right thing to do. But the style of the advocate doesn't work here."
It's a lesson Moffet learned later than most. What "works here" is largely prescribed by what allows people to stick around and make money, and for the city's players, sticking around and making money requires a sense of team spirit. Once you appreciate how this leads to inane policy, missiles that don't work, and an insider culture that bends even those who came to town promising change, you get a sense of why Washington's niceness should be better known. Little of what goes wrong here can be attributed to wicked people doing evil. Far more often, it's nice people doing well.
The Washington Monthly
For May 1994 Is Presented to Diane Sawyer and Robbie Gordon, Prime Time Live
Helene Lewis had four pap smears taken in eight years to check for cervical cancer, and each one came back normal. But each one was wrong. Prime Time Live's undercover investigation of cervical cancer screening labs reveals how poor training of technicians, outdated equipment, and a salary system that rewards speed above accuracy contribute to the high error rate that cost Lewis and many others their lives. When Prime Time Live sent one lab a batch of pre-examined slides for inspection, the lab misidentified 70 percent of cancerous slides as normal. Pap smears can be invaluable help in identifying the early stages of cervical cancer, when it is easily treatable. Sawyer's on-target investigation shows that a woman's first line of defense is in desperate need of reinforcement.
For June 1994 Is Presented to Thomas Omestad, Foreign Affairs
When handling a volatile foreign leader, how does the president know how to walk the tightrope between toughness and provocation? Unfortunately, he relies on the C.I.A.'s psychological profiles, exercises in cocktail-party psychology jigsawed together with incomplete and often dubious information. The agency's most public fiasco came from its assessment that Haiti's president-in-exile, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, suffered from a history of mental illness. Their sources, it turns out, were Aristide's opponents in the military who now rule in his absence. Omestad warns that the stakes are far greater when it comes to Kim Jong II, the new dictator of North Korea. "The C.I.A.'s record on that point is not encouraging," he writes. "And in a crisis that threatens war, flawed profiles could lead to deadly miscalculation."
The Monthly Journalism Award is presented each month to the best newspaper, magazine, television, or radio story (or series of stories) on our political system. Nominations for any newspaper, magazine, or radio or television station in the country are welcome. The subject can be government in its federal, state, or municipal manifestation. Please send nominations to Monthly Journalism Award, 1611 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009. Two copies of the article or broadcast text should accompany the nomination.
Nominations for stories published or aired in July will close September 15. The winner will be announced in the October issue.
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|Title Annotation:||too many nice people in Washington DC politics|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1994|
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