D.C. Summer: A Retrospective

[Yes, I finally got around to it…]

This past summer was spent in Washington D.C. doing a program run by the Fund for American Studies (TFAS), where I studied part of the day at Georgetown and interned at an NGO for the rest. (Check my June and July 2005 archives for some posts referencing my experiences.) I have been asked a few times to summarize my impressions of the way government works.

The NGO I interned at was relatively small and not intimately connected to the halls of power; but it was very much a part of the "vast right-wing consipracy," so to speak. Our major financial backer was one of the big names of the libertarian/conservative movement, and much of our board was composed of Heritage Foundation members. The NGO officers attended the Wednesday roundtables given by Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform. These roundtables served to brief all the major libertarian/conservative organizations in town, and coordinate their lobbying activities in Congress. While much of the gathering's goals matched those of the Bush Administration (and in the one roundtable I attended, an administration official was actually there to talk about Hugo Chavez), this was emphatically not a Republican alliance per se. They wanted deregulation and small government, and the President was giving them precious little to feel good about except for CAFTA.

In that room, I had the sense of a great deal of frustrated power. These people were all representing large constituencies of people who thought that government was too big, too intrusive, and out of control. Yet they could do nothing about it without the Senate, and while they certainly had influence in the House of Representatives, the Senate was much more hostile to their goals. In particular, the gathering's support for CAFTA was small potatoes compared to the direct lobbying by the President, and in the end the people around the room could do little but make their phone calls and hope that the President came through. In the end, of course, CAFTA passed.

TFAS arranged many events for the students; we visited the Federal Reserve, the State Department, the CIA. Everywhere we went, I got the same impression from the staff: they were generally competent people, working incredibly hard for relatively little pay because they genuinely wanted to serve the country. They were cynical as only government workers can be, and sometimes resentful of their low salaries, but they all did the work because they felt a calling, or because they loved being a part of Washington (in which sense that was true is a disturbing question).

(A word on the salaries. Looking at government salaries in the abstract, they don't seem too bad. But D.C. is possibly the most expensive city in America to live in. To get an tiny apartment on a starting government salary, you needed at least three other roommates. Yet the city is filled with people doing just that, in order to work at the center of government.)

At the same time, you could tell a lot about a particular agency by looking at where it was housed. The Federal Reserve is located in one of the great neoclassical edifices, and lavishly appointed in the old style. Inside, one got a tremendous sense of gravity and history. The deliberations of its members cannot help but be influenced by a sense of responsibility for the country whose money they control, as it should be.

The State Department, on the other hand, is located in a terribly ugly building in Foggy Bottom. It seems like something out of a 1950's "This is the Future" exhibit. There are no windows once you get inside, and the main conference room is closed off from the outside world. The employees gave off a vague sense of being out of touch, whether it was the outdated clothing worn by the secretaries or the way that people seemed to blink just a bit too quickly when confronted by a group of mostly well-behaved college students.

I was surprised to find that many midlevel government appointees are selected solely because of their work during election campaigns. One of the speakers who came to TFAS's career day was a midlevel member of the Treasury Department, who described how he had started working campaigns on the state level, eventually becoming a key member of the President's reelection team for his state. Because of that election job, he was given his post in the Treasury. While he was certainly qualified for the position, I was unsettled by the whole idea.

This official invited a few of us to a shindig he had arranged at Capital City Brewery. I was the only one to make it due to a terrible rainstorm, but I got to watch him work a long table filled with Washington professionals. They were senior congressional aides, or else midlevel officials like himself in other agencies. He had brought them together to outline plans for a lobbying organization he was setting up to get Federal funding for a poor area of his state; I suspect that at least part of his intent was to lay the groundwork for an eventual run for elected office. I was certainly not the only one to think so; the others spent the night making connections to this dynamic figure who promised to go far in politics.

My overall impression of how the government works, from my extremely limited vantage point, was that Washington is full of decent, hardworking people who love their country and serve it by playing according to the sometimes corrupt, sometimes nasty, sometimes hypocritical rules of the game. There is far too much money going around, as can be seen by the hordes of lobbying organizations that infest every decent-looking highrise, and that will skew people's behavior. One wonders how the system can ever be tamed, simply because it has become so tightly interdependent and full of incestuous linkages. But at any rate, I have much more respect for the average Washingtonian now than before the summer.

One final note: the Jewish Community Center looked like some sort of miniature neoclassical fortress. It gave off a sense of pathetic pretensions to wealth and power on the one hand, and a deep and abiding insecurity on the other. It may illuminate much about the mindset of the average Jewish lobbyist or politico. (On the other hand, the food was quite good, though I ate more often at Eli's Deli on 20th and N. Mmm, Capital Sandwich…)

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