Because my daughter is a Washington lawyer, I have frequent occasion to hop into my 10-year-old pickup and drive down there from Pennsylvania. Seldom do I see a Maserati or Bentley before I approach DC’s famous Beltway. There, they compete for road space with Lamborghinis and Teslas, along with the usual assortment of Hondas, Fords and taxicabs driven by Sudanese refugees.
Truth be told, it makes me sick. So does the story of a family member’s house. The place had to be worth $750,000 because it was in McLean, VA, a particularly wealthy DC suburb. Built in the 1960s, it was beautifully maintained and attractive. Whoever bought it took a bulldozer to it because the property was far too valuable for such a hovel. They’ll throw up a tacky mansion and make millions.
What bothers me about all this is not that people are making money. It’s how they’re going about it. All that Washington money is your money and mine. It’s taxpayers’ money being spent to support lifestyles that, outside Washington, would be considered lavish.
Technically, a lot of it is corporate money. The corporations, however, are not there for the climate. They’re in the DC area to swill deep draughts from the public trough. Mostly it’s contracting, constructing things like the Affordable Care Act website. Partly it’s lobbying, trying to persuade people that the private sector is ipso facto better at everything than the public sector, which point of view keeps those contracts coming and tempers the government’s ability to control their work and their compensation.
The climate is such that it is possible to find government agencies hiring contractors to conduct studies to justify new projects-projects on which those very contractors are free to bid.
Corporate lobbyists get paid handsomely-$300,000 to start, if your connections are good-and their expense accounts are deep wells of money. That’s because lobbying is an investment, and lobbyists are mainly lightly camouflaged bag men, treading the halls of Congress with what they call contributions and the rest of us would consider bribes. It’s a lucrative enterprise.
Those lobbyists are quick to point out that the public-interest groups, the do-gooders and environmentalists and advocates for the homeless and such, have lobbyists, too. Yes, they have, but they aren’t bag men and they don’t live in McLean. They live in group houses around Tenley Circle and eat lunches they carried with them to cubicles.
The contributions they are able to make don’t move a lot of votes. They can’t threaten anybody.
One thing the contractors do is keep wages down, making the government the biggest low-wage employer in the country, albeit indirectly. Do not imagine that because the government does something, everybody benefits. No janitor at the Kennedy Center could possibly afford to attend the sparkling, magnificent events there. Those are for the lobbyists and their congressional guests.
It’s a nice life on Capitol Hill. Not for the guys in the mailroom, but for the staffers on important committees, who still get plenty of attention from lobbyists. Of course, for that to happen, their bosses have to spend, on average, more than half their time raising money. The rest of the time, they can spend on the people’s business, with the lobbyists watching over their shoulders. It’s cozy.
All that fundraising is necessary because it costs, on average, somewhere north of $1.5 million to win a House seat, and more than $10 million for the upper chamber. So, even though members of Congress are mostly wealthy, themselves, it’s not the cheapest ticket in town.
When, during his last campaign, President Obama said, “the private sector is doing fine,” he told the truth by the usual measures of economic health, which are stock prices and profits. The economy was going gangbusters, still is. But not for the guys in the mailroom, and not for the Sudanese refugees on the Beltway trying to dodge those Bentleys.
Even more than in the Gilded Age-more than at any time since slavery-Americans live in two worlds, two different economies, with two totally different ways of seeing things. Official Washington is in touch with one of those worlds on a constant basis.
There’s a cure for all of this in public financing of campaigns. Of course, in Washington, you’d have to pay your way in to talk about that.