The Root of Washington’s ills

Washington-Post-LogoBy Fareed Zakaria

The hottest political book of the summer, “This Town” by Mark Leibovich, is being read in Washington with equal parts embarrassment and delight. It is a vivid, detailed picture of the country’s ruling elite, filled with tales of ruthless networking, fake friendships and a sensationalist media. But beneath the juicy anecdotes is a depressing message about corruption and dysfunction.

If you are trying to understand why Washington works so badly for the rest of the country, the book says that it works extremely well for its most important citizens: the lobbyists. The permanent government of the United States is no longer defined by party or a branch but by a profession comfortably encamped around the federal coffers. The result is that Washington has become the wealthiest city in the nation, and its relative position has actually improved over the past five years, during the worst recession in 75 years. The country might be struggling, but K Street is not.

Leibovich describes a city in which money has trumped power as the ultimate currency. Lobbyists today hold the keys to what everyone in government — senator or staffer — is secretly searching for: a post-government source of income. He cites an Atlantic magazine report that says that in 1974, only 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists; today, that number is 42 percent for members of the House and 50 percent for senators.

The result is bad legislation. Look at any bill today: They are gargantuan documents filled with thousands of giveaways. The act that created the Federal Reserve in 1913 was only 31 pages. The 1933 Glass-Steagall legislation that regulated banking was 37 pages. The current version of that law, the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill, is 849 pages, with thousands of pages of additional rules. The Affordable Care Act runs more than 2,000 pages. Bills have become so vast because they are qualified by provisions, exceptions and exemptions put in by the very industry being targeted — a process that academics call “regulatory capture.”

In the mid-1950s, there were 5,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. Today, there are 12,000 — and, by several counts, many, many more, because thousands have reclassified themselves as “consultants” and “strategic advisers.” The money they spend — as much as $3.5 billion annually in recent years — sounds substantial but is trivial compared with what they are able to divert from the government’s $3.5 trillion budget.

The mistake Leibovich makes in his telling of Washington tales is to imply that today’s Washingtonians are particularly greedy or venal. I doubt they differ much from earlier generations of power brokers. But the system in which they operate has changed, creating much greater incentives for venality.

Consider just one factor (and there are many): the role of money, which has expanded dramatically over the past four decades. Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig has pointed out that members of Congress spend three of every five workdays raising money. They also vote with extreme attention to their donors’ interests. Lessig cites studies that demonstrate that donors get a big bang for their campaign bucks — sometimes with returns on their “investment” that would make a venture capital firm proud. A company would be crazy not to make such investments.

Compared with other democracies, the United States has become not just an outlier but practically another planet. The total cost of the 2010 national elections in Britain — the mother of parliamentary government — was $86 million. The cost of the 2012 U.S. elections has been estimated to be nearly 75 times that number, at $6.3 billion.

Taking money out of politics is a mammoth challenge. Perhaps the best that one could hope for would be to limit instead what Congress can sell. In other words, enact a thorough reform of the tax code, ridding it of the thousands of special exemptions, credits and deductions that are institutionalized, legalized corruption.

The most depressing aspect of Leibovich’s book is how utterly routine all of the influence-peddling has become. In 1990, Ramsay MacMullen, a distinguished Yale historian of Rome, published a book that took on one of the central questions of his field: Why did the greatest empire in the history of the world collapse in the 5th century? The root cause, he explained, was political corruption, which had become systemic in the late Roman Empire. What was once immoral became accepted as standard practice, and what was once illegal was celebrated as the new normal. Many decades from now, a historian looking at where America lost its way could use “This Town” as a primary source.

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