The Lost Village

Beltway pundits meanwhile sneer about the Beltway pundits, as if they weren’t just such pundits themselves. The major players here accuse one another of being that which they themselves are; and this Dostoevskyian undertone reached its peak, or nadir, in the Clinton impeachment farce, when one after another of the President’s accusers turned out to be accusing him of things that they themselves had done—or were doing still. Dan Burton, the Republican of Indiana who called Clinton a “sleaze,” had been the Lothario of the Indiana state legislature with a secret illegitimate offspring. Newt Gingrich, of course, was doing it with a young lady in the church choir.

They all feel a need to attack some part of what they are—to separate themselves from the city that they crave to be a part of. At one level they say to the public, “See, I’m not like the others in this degenerate place.” At another level, perhaps, they chastise themselves for the knowledge that they are.

But before the rest of us get too huffy, we might pause and consider whether we all aren’t implicated to some degree. The Washington that Americans love to disparage bears more than a little resemblance to the America that they inhabit. There’s a certain pandering quality to the Beltway bashing, after all. The politician does not just say, “I’m not like the shmucks.” He or she also says, “You voters aren’t like them either.” Yes, Washington has peculiarities and tics aplenty. Yet in the end, it’s the way it is because America is the way it is. It is a distillate of a trait that DeToqueville noted long ago—the narrow self-seeking, and the commercial culture that amplifies and reinforces this quality at every turn.

You’ve read that Washington today is dominated by money, obsessed with media and image, driven by manipulative and intrusive advertising, in the thrall of self-interest and the short-term view. Gee, does that sound a little like a country that I know—like a “New Economy” that I know? In fact, the best aspects of Washington—the ones that are disappearing—were a form of resistance to the dominant trends in the U.S. today, rather than an acquiescence to them. In some respects, the more Washington comes to resemble the rest of America, the worse it gets.

He was back in D.C. after four years in San Francisco, where he had worn dungarees every day, and could have been taken for an IPO millionaire. Now he was on an errand to the Hart Senate Office Building, the new one with the big mobile in the atrium. He was wearing khaki pants and a blazer, which for him is dressed up. But here on Capitol Hill he felt like a schlepp. Everyone was wearing suits—not just suits, but power suits, the kind the majority of men in the Bay Area probably don’t even own. He expected a Capitol police officer to nab him for insufficient attire.

I’ve noticed this too. There have been suits on Capitol Hill—in both senses of the word—ever since there has been a Capitol Hill. What’s different now, I think, is how pervasive they have become. Not that long ago, clothing served to reinforce the Congressional caste system. Dark suits for senators, lighter ones for chiefs of staff, jackets and flannel slacks for legislative assistants, the khaki and blue blazer uniform for interns. Now, it seems that dress up has moved down the scale. You see interns wearing suits and white shirts as they sort the mail. (Whether by acculturation or good sense, female interns still sometimes show up in dungarees.) It’s as though everyone is going to interviews, which in a sense they are.

This is typically the cue for a pundit rant. Washington is dressing up at a time when the real producers in the economy, the hearty yeomen with the IPO rakings and nonexistent profits, are dressing down. How out of touch. How Beltway. It is true that the Washington power corridor can feel like a college campus on which everyone is trying to impress one another. Yet the power centers in most major cities are besuited too. And anyway, the question is not what they are wearing in Washington, but why.

Follow Bill Gates or other high tech billionaires through the halls of Congress these days and you get a clue. Those voices you hear are the sounds of powerful people fawning. Redmond and Mountain View may be a continent from Washington, but they revolve upon the same axis: the money culture that affects us all.

Politics follows commerce at virtually every turn. TV ads, demographic targeting, focus groups, and polls—most of the scummy apparatus of modern politics started in the business world. As commerce has engulfed the culture—as just about every state and stage of human experience has turned into something to buy—it should not be surprising that it has engulfed politics too. As commerce panders to an ever-lower denominator of self-absorption and desire, it should not be surprising that politics does too. Washington is where we permit ourselves to see these things most clearly, because we say that it is not ourselves. Who dresses down, if not people who want to show that they are not the kind of people who dress up?

Not long ago I had occasion to peruse the record of Congressional hearings from the early 1930s. The committee chairman was Senator Robert LaFollette Jr., the Republican of Wisconsin, and the subject was the senator’s proposal for a National Economic Commission to map a path out of the Depression. LaFollette sought comment from leading economic experts, captains of industry, labor leaders, and the like. The thing that is impressive today—staggering is a better word—is the depth of the discussion, and how thoroughly the senator knew the subject at hand.

With virtually no staff, LaFollette led the representative of the Federal Reserve through testimony that alone occupies more than forty small-print pages in the hearing record. It was a virtuoso performance, and he repeats it over and over. The entire Senate staff fit into one building back then (now there are three, plus the Capitol itself). The hot new information technology in town was the telephone.

Yet it is hard to envision hearings like that today—probing basic economic questions, with little regard to ideological boundaries or the clock. Partly that’s because of the ideological repression of these more prosperous times. But partly too it is the paradox of the information age. Amidst a deluge of fact we seem less able to ask good questions. With a proliferation of “knowledge workers” in the form of staff, no one seems to know enough.

Or have enough time. In theory, more staff should mean more time in Congress—just as more labor saving devices should give us more time in our homes. Yet members of Congress, like the rest of us, have practically none, and the reason comes back to money. Time and money in Washington are like time and space in physics: different dimensions of the same thing. If you want to know why no one has any time in Congress, the first place to look is at the money that flows in.

The money question is more nuanced, and therefore interesting, than the media generally portray. Campaign money buys different things in different contexts. Speaking generally, corporate money still buys less from Democrats than from Republicans—though the gap has been closing. From Republicans it buys marriage, from Democrats perhaps an off-and-on affair. Sometimes it buys little more than time on a crowded schedule; almost always there’s a built-in caveat that compelling home state interests come first.

But the basic thing that money buys is time. A campaign contribution may not always swing a vote. But it always occupies time—time in which something else isn’t getting done. It starts of course with the fund raising itself. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, spends two hours a day on the telephone asking for cash, and you can be sure that his Republican counterparts are spending at least as much. Practically all of them do, to some degree at least. They also spend a lot of time at receptions and access-fests for donors, strategizing with consultants, and the rest. The time a LaFollette might have spent reading, today’s representative must spend raising money. If the congressional speeches on C-SPAN often seem like the calcified shells of old ideas, wrapped in hectoring polemic, it’s partly because these people have so little time in which to reflect on new ones.

Then there is the time spent meeting with the people who gave the money. This is more important than it might appear. Time I spend with you is time I don’t spend with someone else, including the people on the other side of you. It is time I don’t spend trying to check the truth of what you’ve said. I once was involved in an obscure trade issue that involved many of the largest corporations in the U.S. and abroad. It was the kind of vote that liberal Democrats would use to make amends to business lobbies because they usually faced no organized opposition from the other side.

This time they did however—from a tiny group whose marginality was evident in that I was among the Washington advocates. The congressional waters did not exactly part at my approach. It would take weeks to get a meeting with a lowly staffer. On one such occasion, I was sitting in the reception area waiting for my audience, when a group of men, with power suits and briefcases, emerged from the senator’s office. There was a jocular familiarity about the scene. These were lobbyists for the group I was opposing.

Such experiences send a message, one that is reinforced on Capitol Hill continually. It’s the kind of Washington tableau that reporters forget how to see.

I once heard a veteran (too veteran, perhaps) Washington reporter dismiss the role of money in politics on the grounds that PACs don’t always get what they want. This is true. PACs often create stalemate; the prolixity of competing interests causes the process to grind to a halt. For years, commercial banks, S&Ls, insurance companies, and brokers fought to a standstill on banking reform. (The eventual resolution showed that stalemate isn’t always the worst thing.) They all give a lot of money, but they don’t all get what they want.

Yet neither do they have to swallow much they can’t abide. The key questions are whose agendas are on the table to begin with and who gets the congressional time. If you look at your bank charges today—the ATM fees, the fees for using a teller or even receiving a bad check—you just might get the impression that the main concerns of the congressional majority on banking legislation were not yours. You would be right.

The official term for the clogged congressional arteries is “gridlock.” Typically it is cited as a Washington disease. Yet Washington is not the only place in this country where time has shrunk, and where competing demands strain the system both individually and collectively. Members of Congress, like the rest of us, are subject to the nonstop barrage of the “information” economy. They, like us, have lost the quiet of the home at night thanks to TV, the telephone, and the Web; and have lost the wonderful enforced leisure of travel too. Sen. LaFollette rode the train between Washington and Wisconsin. There were no cell phones or remote e-mail. There was nothing to do but read, talk, or think. (In Washington, the air conditioner has destroyed the enforced leisure of summer as well.)

Washington isn’t the only place in America where money drives the agenda, nor where the gathering and spending of it consumes people’s time. In Silicon Valley, time has just about disappeared. In this seed bed of the nation’s supposed wealth, no one has any of that which wealth is supposed to signify—free time. Regis McKenna, a consultant-guru in the Valley, has hailed this development as the bright future of us all: “Imagine a world,” he wrote in his book Real Time, “in which time seems to vanish and space seems completely malleable. Where the gap between need or desire and fulfillment collapses to zero. Where distance equals a microsecond in lapsed connection time. A virtual world created at your command.”

This may sound scary. Regis thinks it’s way cool. Two hundred and seventy million of us in the U.S. alone, seeking instantaneous fulfillment—that is not a promising recipe for democracy, which requires process and compromise. It could easily jam the circuits, which it has, in the form of noise, traffic, pollution, and sprawl. It could speed up the day to the point where there is no time at all. Our experience of time arises from a sense of space between events. McKenna lays out a hypothetical daily schedule for the person of tomorrow, in which space has ceased to exist. At fifteen and thirty minute intervals, it lists such events as “awakened by CD music, e-mail monitor, security appliance controller,” “go to office online,” “keep appointment with Weight Watchers’,” and “get lunch at Burger King drive through.” The day ends with: “Take two melatonin to get to sleep fast.”

McKenna calls this person, without irony, the “Twenty-Four Hour Consumer.” The schedule helps explain why stress is unlikely to diminish any time soon. And anyone who has worked on Capitol Hill will recognize something about this schedule. The tasks are different, but the manic tempo, the sense of entrapment in a movie that’s running too fast, is much the same as what our representatives endure. The people who are creating the future have created it for Washington as well. Washington lags behind the culture at large, but this does not speak in the capital’s disfavor.

Washington is composed of at least three cities. There is the official Washington of government and lobbyists; the black Washington that covers most of the city’s expanse; and the far Northwest quadrant in which reside most of the white and influential. For years, Dupont Circle has been a buffer zone between the first and the third—between the government enclave that people come to work in, and the neighborhoods in which people actually live.

South of the Circle, along Connecticut Avenue, are the graceless modern boxes of lobby and trade association land, where rents run in the vicinity of $48 a square foot and where the uniform is suit and tie even on sweltering summer days. North of the Circle people wear t-shirts and there are still, miraculously, low-rent buildings where operations like this magazine survive with fingers crossed. Sam Smith, the local essayist, calls the Circle the “border checkpoint through which you pass to go from community to facility.”

Through the ’70s and ’80s, the forces of improvement marched up the avenue, routing the eccentric and impecunious in their path. This magazine occupied a suite near the Mayflower Hotel in the ’70s, with seven individual offices for $500 a month. That building has given way to a high-end office emporium. The Dupont Circle Building, once owned by the Machinists Union and a rabbit warren of quixotic causes, has gone the same sad way. But the movement to eradicate low-rent contrariness from the nation’s capitol—a movement which Smith calls “demographic cleansing”—somehow stopped at the Circle, more or less.

In recent months the line has fallen. A company by the name of Starwood Realty has purchased a row of buildings north of the Circle, and has evicted the freelance writers and the community-minded architecture firm. The Newsroom, the District’s best out-of-town newspaper store, had to move, as did a second-hand-book store. The new tenants, whoever they are, most likely will represent “improvement” only in the narrow sense in which developers and economists use that term.

I mention this because that bursting of the geographic dam is suggestive of something larger that has happened in Washington—and in the culture generally—over the last generation or so. It is a form of enclosure, the colonizing of human space on behalf of moneyed interest. Much as the Enclosure Acts of 18th century England redefined the commons as real estate and forced small farmers from their land, so the hyper-commoditized real estate of Washington has re-rendered the city in the image of those who pay the higher rents. Square foot by square foot, it has forced out those who speak from different values and seek different ends.

To put this another way, money defines not just time in Washington. It defines space as well; and this steers people in the direction in which money flows. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was possible to get by on very little. There were cheap apartments in Adams Morgan, group houses in Dupont Circle and Glover Park, and furnished rooms in the old West End. A book of 10 tickets at the Circle Theater, on Pennsylvania Avenue, cost 20 dollars. A plate of spanakopeta at the Astor restaurant at 18th and M was $1.95—with salad and roll.

The good old days weren’t always so good. But they were less expensive, which meant more space, psychological as well as physical, and thus a greater sense of possibility. The future begins in low-rent zones; they are the kitchens of the next thing. The original Apple computers came from a garage; Microsoft manages its monopoly from a sprawling office campus. In Washington, where the business is policy and (occasionally) ideas, cheap office space is the equivalent of Steve Jobs’ family garage. When it disappears, so does thinking that challenges the dominion of the moneyed.

What’s left are amply-funded opinion-tanks that provide intellectual justification for the providers of those funds. (The term “think” tank implies a mental destination that is not predetermined, which is not the case. Name any such institution in town—Heritage, for example, or CATO—and an issue, and most people in political Washington could tell you exactly where the place stands.) We get old ideas packaged as new ones, the old political economy pretending to be new. We get the enclosure of political and intellectual space, and it all starts with rent.

Rents here aren’t yet as bad as in San Francisco or New York. But they are starting up the same steep ramp, and this turns the inner compass needle toward the paycheck, even in people who’d rather think of something else. It produces a constant state of worry that some slicked-back sharpie in a t-shirt and Armani shades could drive up and put you on the street.

Housing is just the start. The cheap repertory movie theaters like the Circle and the Biograph are gone—the former thanks to George Washington University’s real estate empire, the latter to a CVS drug store. Budget restaurants like the Astor are gone too. North of the Circle, there’s just one cheap pizza parlor left. If you live in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, then you know the scene. In a thousand different ways, the city now says to newcomers: If you can’t pay, you don’t play. This is on top of the heavy load of financial obligation that young people now bring with them. One of the most clever and insidious acts of the Reagan Administration was to cut student aid and replace it with loans. The Reaganites knew that young people carrying major debt would be less likely to become low-paid trouble-makers.

Such changes have taken place largely beneath the radar of the established media, in large part because media salaries have increased with the rents. (George Will does not worry about Mr. Hippo-Sleazo driving up with an eviction notice.) But they have altered the context of politics here in a fundamental way. Since time and space are different dimensions of the same thing, it’s not surprising that the same forces that have taken over time in Washington, have claimed its space as well—legislative as well as geographic.

When the first wave of activists came to D.C. in the ’60s they found a sleepy capital of gray men of the kind pictured in the Time and Newsweek magazines of the day. The power axis was defined largely by the Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the Congress, and the president. The deals were done in quiet; media was a secondary consideration. Trade associations were in New York; the lobbyists were in D.C.

A Ralph Nader could feel a little like a kid who finds an empty playground basketball court with a new rim and net. There was political space to claim, and the media, still chafing from the repression of the McCarthy years, was eager to take on the status quo. Operating out of phone booths and from a tiny office in the old National Press Building, a Nader could vault over the back-room deals and speak directly to the public. For a number of years, in opinion polls, he ranked up with the president and the chief justice of the Supreme Court as the most influential people in America.

But Nader et al. spawned their own antithesis. The story has been told many times: how the trade associations swarmed into Washington, corporations expanded their lobby ranks, the opinion tanks cast their spell on the reportorial class, and so-called astro-turf campaigns stirred up a facsimile of grassroots support to undercut the advocates who could not afford such tactics. The result is evident today. Washington’s legislative space has become as crowded as its office space—with equally high rent. The campaign-finance system is the DOS of this machine—and I’m talking in part about the supposed reforms of the 1970s, which in some ways made the problem worse.

Before those reforms put a limit on individual contributions, a member of Congress could load up on money from a handful of interests, and thus be free to take on the rest. They might even have a benevolent angel who wanted them in office to do the right thing. This effect was evident especially in rural states, where corporate interests were not strong, campaigns were relatively cheap, and the major interest groups—family farmers for example—were benign. The so-called Common Cause reforms changed all that. With a tight cap on individual donations, members had to spread their nets more broadly. They had to subject themselves to many smaller strings as opposed to fewer big ones; and this turned Congress into a dense thicket of interest in which there is little space to move. Thus the beating up on government—it’s about the only institution left in town that doesn’t give money to campaigns.

The enclosure of political space also has upped the ante on contentiousness and rancor. Congress has never been a place where the lions lie down gently with the lambs. But the kind of gang-war mentality that prevails today is over the top. Newt Gingrich had a lot to do with this; as a minority-party bomb thrower he turned the place into a Beirut—and easier in than out. But money has a lot to do with this too (and is not unrelated to Gingrich of course). Things get tense when there is big money on the table. When that money is stirring up trouble for you in your district, they get more tense still.

Awful Washington again. Yet, in this too, Congress is a mirror of the country at large. The enclosure of political space in Washington is not unlike the commoditizing of social space generally. Trying to get through a day in the U.S. without being assaulted by ads is about as hard as trying to move legislation in Washington without running into the thicket of PACs. The efforts to patent and bio-engineer life for monetary gain are the commercial equivalent of the effort to re-engineer the political process for commercial ends. This applies to the media as well. The disinclination of Congress to upset big donors is much like the reluctance of the big-shot media to upset big advertisers or their corporate bosses. When journalists at the major outlets say Congress is a captive of moneyed interests, they too are pointing the finger at another version of themselves.

The enclosure of political space in Washington has been much like the invasion of Wal-Mart into small town America. It has undermined the political Main Street—the traditional relationships of the political village—and left the impersonal calculus of the market in its place. As Washington has embraced the mantras of the market, it has shown by its own example the shortcomings of the market as a social model.

Congress itself has participated in these changes, largely through a vast increase in staff. Not that long ago, House and Senate offices had a small and intimate feel, like a family business. There was little bureaucracy or specialization, few buffers between the staff and the boss. The informality could take you by surprise. As a young public interest intern, I once helped a Senate subcommittee prepare for hearings involving the predations of the Penn Central Railroad. The day before the hearings, late in the afternoon, the staff attorney realized that no one had drafted an opening statement for the chairman. He was busy, and there was no one else to do it. So the task fell to me.

I sat down at a Selectric, a bit dazed to be assigned such an important task, and proceeded to write a statement I was sure would bring the assemblage to its feet. I was also sure that someone would revise it before morning, so I really cut loose. The next morning I took a seat in the hearing room, full of anticipation. Some of my own words might be uttered, in the Senate of the United States. The chairman started reading, and I was thrilled, and then horrified, as my sophomoric prose came back at me from the dais, word for hyperventilating word. This was a useful lesson on the hazards of cheesy polemic. But more importantly, it showed how Congress was not a model of professional management in those less bureaucratic days.

But professional management is a corporate ideal, not a democratic one. What the Senate lacked in management, it made up for in tradition, and ties of loyalty and trust. People called it a “club,” which they generally did not mean as a compliment, and with good reason. Yet a club has a good side too—just as a traditional ethnic neighborhood has a good side too, Archie Bunker bigotry and all. This was most apparent at the staff level, where employees felt like personal assistants, like clerks for a judge.

As staffs expanded in the ’70s and ’80s, that world came apart. There were good reasons for the expansion, or what seemed like good reasons at the time. Congress wanted to keep closer tabs on the bureaucracy it had created; and, after Watergate, on the imperial presidency as well. There was a need to deal with the new legions of lobbyists, and with the constituent mail that was pouring in as never before. There was also the worthy cause of decentralization. The so-called Watergate Class of 1974 insisted on tempering the power of chairmen by giving subcommittees more autonomy and staff.

Justified and beneficial to some extent, the staff increases nevertheless came at a price. More staff meant more points of contact for lobbyists and more memos for the member to read at night. It meant more data and technocracy and less time for big questions. Daily schedules came to resemble the departure screens at LaGuardia. There was also a large shift in the relationships between members and staff. Where once offices were a little like family grocery stores, with all the makeshift informality, they began to feel more like corporate operations, with rigid hierarchies and strict separation of functions. In this setting, employment became more fungible—more a labor market. After elections, resums start appearing in congressional offices from the staffs of the defeated or retired—a migrant labor-force with issue expertise and knowledge of the Hill to sell. Liberal Democrats find resums from former Republican staff. They know the issues and the players. What difference does it make where the boss stands?

Washington has always been a magnet for people on the make. Back in the Gilded Age, one enterprising congressional staff member also worked as a newspaper correspondent and lobbyist at the same time. Today the hustle is more buttoned-down, and hedged by ethics rules that provide an aura of legitimacy to what might otherwise be unseemly. Build the resum in Congress for a few years, or at the Securities and Exchange Commission, or at the tax division of the Justice Department, and you are ready to sell your human capital at the law firms and lobby operations across town.

The migration down Pennsylvania Avenue to K Street seems to be increasing. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, which studies the operations of Congress, the typical staff tenure has been diminishing. People get their visas stamped more quickly; and the more stamps the better the cach. The day I write this, the “In the Loop” column in The Washington Post, includes this item:

“Going private Bill O’Neill, legislative director to former representative Robert A. Roe (D-N.J.) and more recently senior policy advisor to the House Government Reform Committee under Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), is off to Sprint’s Washington office to be a director of government affairs.”

I don’t know Mr. O’Neill. His work for a mainstream Democrat and then a right-wing Republican might have reflected deeply-held ideals. But there is little question that such work on both sides of the partisan aisle positions one nicely for a corporate job in “government affairs.” There was a time when the culture of the institution could provide a bit of counterweight to such moves. Someone who had worked closely with the late Congressman Wright Patman, a legendary populist on banking issues and chairman of the House Banking Committee, might feel uncomfortable about trying to lobby the congressman on behalf of Chase Manhattan Bank.

But the increased liquidity of human capital in the capital—the absence of what economists call transactional “friction” and others call principle, or loyalty, or moral scruple—has diminished this effect. Thus the increased scale of Congress has meshed neatly with the commoditizing of space and time in Washington. Market economics is the study of transactions between strangers for money. The implicit thrust is to drive more of life into an arena in which people deal with one another in this way. Thus, work in the nation’s capital has come closer to the market ideal, just like everything else. Life becomes a continuing audition—thus the suits, which serve as a kind of modem connection, an announcement that yes, I’m the kind of person you would want to have.

That’s not entirely fair, of course. There are dedicated servants of the public interest who wear suits every day, just as there are members of Congress who have striven mightily to resist these trends. I have worked with both, and that is one reason I am a little fed up with people who obsess over the mote in Washington’s eye but don’t consider the beam in their own. Before the grumbling starts again over the wicked ways of Washington, pause just one second please. An overheated housing market, a rapacious grasp for money, a manic drive to commoditize—and make money from—every moment of conscious experience, an itinerant work force that is forever on the prowl—this does sound a little like a New Economy that I know.

The old Washington was pre-modern, in ways both good and bad. It was defined by folkways, tradition and personal loyalties, as well as by the transaction of money. It had space for the contrary and eccentric. It had time in which people could think about these things. As technology and commerce have uprooted the last vestiges of the pre-modern from our lives, it is little wonder that politics have followed suit. Sometimes what we see is what we are. If Washington seems out of touch, then we all might look around and ask whether this might be connected just a bit to what our country has become.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation