A Foreign Correspondent in Washington

Presented at the Second Annual Reason Weekend

(Page 2 of 4)

The one-dimensional nature of Washington culture lends to the city's insularity and, I believe, has a particularly malign impact on the thousands of young adults who come here directly from college to work as reporters, Capitol Hill staffers, bureaucrats, or for lobbying or advocacy groups. If you think I exaggerate, consider this: When I worked for Reason in Los Angeles, I joined a Methodist Church in Santa Monica and became active in a ministry for single adults. The group featured a fascinating assortment of folks--software designers, bankers, engineers, grad students, actors and script writers (it is, after all, L.A.), a social worker, a college math teacher, a high-school guidance counselor, and a woman who worked for a home-security firm.

Contrast this with D.C. When I moved there, I briefly attended a Methodist Church in the District a few blocks from the campus of American University. Every single person my age I met there was either a graduate student or a Capitol Hill staffer. That's how the policy community in D.C. operates. Some of you may have attended forums at the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation when you've visited Washington. Chances are, the only people you will meet there (except for the occasional out-of-town donor) will be journalists, academics, Hill staffers, bureaucrats, or people who work for advocacy groups. If you meet somebody who works for a private corporation, that person's probably a lobbyist. AND THESE ARE THE ONLY PEOPLE YOU EVER ROUTINELY MEET IN WASHINGTON! You work with them, have a beer after work with them, date them, go to parties with them. They're everywhere.

As a result, the city sucks in a lot of bright, young people, but exposes them to an extremely limited range of experiences. I don't intend to dump on lobbyists, because entrepreneurs certainly have the right to encourage government officials to leave them alone. But when the only people who work for private companies you routinely meet--with exception of bartenders, haircutters, and retail clerks--are lobbyists, you get an implied message that the primary purpose of business is to extract favors from the government.

Washington's insularity--which also affects people who are Reasons's fellow travelers--might have an impact on how far any Republican revolution may go. In the January 23 National Review, Andy Ferguson, a former speechwriter for George Bush and another of my Washington acquaintances, casts doubts on the Republican call to "devolve" functions of the federal government. As he points out, if policy making moves away from D.C., what will the policy wonks do? "If, for example," Ferguson writes, "welfare were 'returned to the states,' as some propose, the great welfare debates would perforce take place in the state capitals. I know several welfare experts in Washington, good federalists all. Not one of them would be caught dead in Bismarck or Springfield, Illinois. I'll wager that they thus become a subtle lobby for keeping welfare a federal responsibility, always (of course!) for the soundest reasons of policy." Interestingly, the latest issue of the Heritage Foundation's quarterly publication Policy Review features an article by Heritage welfare expert Robert Rector, arguing why it would be a disaster to give state bureaucracies control of welfare programs. As Andy Ferguson says, "A diaspora of Washington wonks is unthinkable, not when we can spend our days with the brethren in seminars and conferences at the Willard [Hotel] or AEI."

The second Washington sin is immaturity--an attribute I dealt with at some length in my Reason column. To this day, some two years after that column ran, people in D.C.'s free-market community view me with some suspicion. Go figure. Here's another example from my own experience. I worked briefly in Washington as an intern for the National Journalism Center in the summer of 1989. NJC is an organization that attempts to train young journalists to become solid reporters rather than op-ed pontificators. NJC provides housing for its interns in a group house on Capitol Hill; one of the older alumni served as the "house father," as an unofficial chaperone who lived with us interns, most of whom were still in college. I was 31 years old, and one other intern was my age, so the three of us tended to hang together while our younger comrades raided the local taverns for free food and cheap beers most nights. As you may remember from my column, I noted that in Washington, you never really have to pay for food. There's always a reception or happy hour somewhere, but how many soggy egg rolls or chicken drummettes you can consume without doing permanent damage to your digestive system is anybody's guess. Anyway, one night when we were playing cards, our chaperone sort of shrugged at me and said, It's amazing how many of these kids will never leave Washington. They'll get a job in some congressional office or as a reporter on some small-time newspaper, making $12,000 bucks a year, and they'll be happy. They'll live in a group house like this, and as long as they have enough money for beer and Metro fare, they'll never want to leave.

Another pathology Washington encourages is its legendary hubris--the belief that people from the Imperial City know best. I got a glimpse of this first-hand late in 1990, when I was still working in the L.A. offices and attended a Federalist Society conference in New Orleans. The conservative legal group's theme was "establishing property rights and the rule of law in former communist countries." Legal scholars and jurists from the United States were paired up with political activists from the former Soviet bloc; it was an exhilaring weekend.

The opening speaker was Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. After giving his standard off-the-shelf speech about the importance of the rule of law and how these courageous individuals from Eastern Europe could learn from the American example, Thornburgh left the conference, returned to Washington, and the proceedings continued.

The first panel was supposed to discuss how property rights can be established in societies in which all property was communally owned. One of the panelists was University of Chicago Law Professor Richard Epstein, the brilliant law and economics scholar, author of the book Takings, and subject of an interview in our April issue.

Epstein opened up by saying (I'm paraphrasing here ), I was going to discuss how to convert the ruble into hard currency, but.... This performance by Mr. Thornburgh is a prime example of what's wrong with Washington. These guys come down here, give a speech, then leave without ever hearing anything that takes place in these meetings. And besides that, his speech was a classic example of the type of dishonest, disingenuous boilerplate that substitutes for thinking that takes place in that city. While General Thornburgh pays homage to property rights and the rule of law, his administration has declared war against both concepts. Epstein then spent the rest of his 10 minutes outlining how the Bush administration was--unconstitutionally, in his view-- prosecuting insider-trading violations, using the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute to illegally confiscate the property of high-flying Wall Street traders merely because they made lots of money in mysterious ways, and trampling the rights of property owners through the Justice Department's prosecutions of environmental crimes.

Epstein's performance caused jaws to drop. After the panel, I had to introduce myself and cheer him on. He told me, I really had figured out how to convert the ruble--he showed me his notes--but I can't stand these guys who think they know everything and will listen to nobody.

You hear about Washington's hubris on talk shows, or when Republicans gripe about the way Democrats ran Congress. But this imperial attitude occasionally affects organizations on our side of policy issues--a reason, perhaps, why our Privatization Center schedules its annual conference for state and local officials outside Washington, where people are protected from Beltway Fever.

I attended another day-long Washington policy event in early January that was called by Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith and Cleveland Mayor Mike White. They wanted to get a group of their colleagues together who are known as policy innovators. With the help of market-oriented organizations, the mayors hoped to craft a unified message for Capitol Hill: What can the new Republican leaders do (or, even better, not do) to help cities? Along with Mayor Goldsmith were Republicans Bret Schundler of Jersey City, Steve Bartlett of Dallas, Richard Vinroot of Charlotte, Tom Fetzer of Raleigh, and Democrat John Norquist of Milwaukee. None of the mayors had any patience for regulations, even those they could impose at the local level. Mayor Norquist, the Democrat, was the most radical. He said he would offer the feds a deal: Stop sending federal tax dollars and federal regulations to Milwaukee, and the city would flourish on its own.

There were representatives from all of the Washington-based free-market organizations, along with persons from the Manhattan Institute, based in New York, and the Hudson Institute, headquartered right here. Although I made no formal presentation, I attended both as a reporter and as an unofficial representative of the Reason Foundation.

What struck me was that the representatives from the Washington-based organizations, for the most part, gave standard boilerplate talks about the cost of regulations and how markets are superior to mandates. The presentations were laden with abstractions not at all relvant to the mayor's purposes. I even succumbed at one point, losing a semantic struggle with Mayor Norquist over the definition of unfunded mandates.

By contrast, the representatives from Manhattan and Hudson offered meaty presentations and substantive suggestions. During one of the Washington-centered presentations, Norquist threw up his hands in exasperation, and said, I know this stuff already! What useful information can you offer us that we can take to Congress?

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