Four years ago, libertarians working within the Federal government could have fit easily into a phone booth. Today, however—thanks in large part to the efforts of one Congressional staffer—they have grown greatly in number and influence.
Behind this change has been a bright, attractive, 31-year-old legislative assistant named Scootch Pankonin. With the support of her employer, Congressman Steve Symms of Idaho, she has organized a loose network of libertarians throughout Capitol Hill and the civil service. The group has so effectively spread word of its concerns that a number of Congressmen regularly check with Pankonin to determine the libertarian position on issues. Equally important, disgruntled bureaucrats are leaking reports to her of horror stories to be investigated.
Pankonin had not heard of libertarianism for most of her years as a press aide to her previous employer, a leading Senate conservative. She knew, however, that she disagreed with the senator's views on civil liberties issues. "When Steve Symms was running for Congress in 1972, he was mentioning the word libertarianism—and talking about some of the libertarian philosophy," she says. "I read his press releases, and said 'aha.'"
Her education quickly went deeper. After joining Symms' staff as a natural resources specialist, she began reading Rothbard and Mises at the prompting of the new Congressman. Seminars followed with the Foundation for Economic Education, as did meetings with Rothbard and weekend work for the 1974 Libertarian gubernatorial campaign in New York. Pankonin also bought the entire FEE library, but admits that the past two years have been too busy for her to make a dent in it.
Libertarians on Capitol Hill first began to organize in late 1974, when Pankonin and Senate staffer, Dr. Arthur Carol, decided to launch the Free Market Luncheon Group. In addition to her full-time workload, Pankonin took responsibility for organizing the weekly catered gathering, which was soon drawing some of the most distinguished libertarians and governmental figures in the country. Among those appearing before the group, in its year and a half of existence, were Council of Economic Advisors chairman Alan Greenspan, Nobel Prize winning economist F.A. Hayek, and economist Murray Rothbard. Some of the luncheons attracted 150 paying Congressional staffers and guests.
The luncheon group was ended in 1976 due to increasing demands on Pankonin's time, although a dinner group—to be held at less frequent intervals—will soon be taking its place. Pankonin notes that benefits continue to flow from the luncheons, however. About 10 Congressional staffers became hard-core libertarians after beginning to attend the weekly sessions, and more than a dozen libertarians surfaced in the bureaucracies. The latter include middle and upper echelon officials in the Federal Trade Commission, HUD, the Department of Transportation, the Council of Economic Advisors staff, and the Community Services program.
The informal underground has been having an impact ever since. With advice from their allies in the bureaucracy, Congressional libertarian staffers are able to frustrate proposals that would injure consumers and taxpayers. "Libertarians in the agencies call to alert us about new programs, and we get together in the evenings to talk about new proposals and amendment ideas," Pankonin says. The result is that libertarians are often able to assure a withering, technical scrutiny of bills submitted to Congressional committees, and offer plausible alternatives.
Ordinary bureaucrats who nurse grievances have also begun approaching libertarians in Congress. "We're getting a lot of 'rat finks' in the regulatory agencies who say, 'I woke up this morning and thought of all the horrible things I'm doing to the American consumer," Pankonin says. "And then they spill the beans. That has probably been the biggest function of the luncheon group—establishment of a clearinghouse for people in the agencies, Congress, and business communities."
Pankonin recognizes the odds against those working from within. Each year, she sees an increasing number of constituents with urgent problems caused by the state—a woman "starving on the street" because of a Social Security computer problem, numerous victims of OSHA, or people harassed by the IRS. Increasingly, the victims have nowhere to turn to but their Congressman. "Every year, we get more and more such problems," she says. "The problems are going to keep growing as the government gets bigger."
The blame for the worsening state of affairs, Pankonin believes, rests with the attitude of the ordinary Congressman. "There isn't one member of Congress who doesn't recognize that somebody's hurt, or somebody falls through the slats, every time the government does something new," she says. "But the answer is never to repeal, but to put bandaids on for one group and relocate the problem to another group."
When not fighting short-sighted political "solutions," Pankonin enjoys travel, libertarian socializing, and time spent with her six-year-old daughter, Anne. She claims to have fed every pigeon in Southern Virginia and to have visited the local zoo about four dozen times. Besides these activities, Pankonin lays plans for the day when she enters the private sector, perhaps as a lobbyist on behalf of private use of natural resources.
Whatever her future vocation, Pankonin intends to remain near Washington and active in libertarian politics. Two trends particularly encourage her: an interest by some Congressmen in libertarianism as a way to reach antipolitical voters, especially young people; and a larger convergence of libertarianism with some elements of the New Left. These trends to her augur success beyond the day-to-day battles to extinguish political forest fires. As Pankonin sees it, libertarians now have the capacity to begin starting some forest fires of their own, in the heart of the Federal government.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Scootch Pankonin".