Confessions of a Washington Reject
A behind-the-scenes look at the bizarre world of Congressional staffs.
From about the middle of June 1976 through the third of January, 1977, I was serving my country on a full-time basis, meaning that I was deep into the federal trough, but not paying Social Security taxes. When it's all said and done, not paying Social Security taxes for seven months was probably the single most important benefit I received for my stay in government service.
This should serve as an introduction to the nature of government service. I was an employee of the sovereign state of Congress. You think I'm joking. Not a bit. It is indeed a sovereign state. First of all, it employs its very own police force, and the force is probably the 14th or 15th largest police force in the United States. Second, Congress has wisely determined that laws passed by Congress to protect this nation's citizens do not apply to Capitol Hill. That, one must admit, is a sign of sovereignty. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission bureaucrats have no authority on Capitol Hill, so the secretaries are better looking, lower paid, and work harder than in other businesses. Nobody has to hire minority group members, except for political reasons. There are no contracts. Congressmen hire and fire at will—or at least they think they do. There is a great pension plan, assuming anyone is so stupid as to believe that any pension is great in an era of inflation. But you don't have to belong to it. The boys at OSHA do not prowl around the halls of Congress, since they would be able to shut the place down if they were allowed to apply OSHA rules on safety. There are no Nader belts on the official cars of Congress, unless the congressman wants them. You cannot subpoena a member of Congress for anything relating even remotely to his official duties. You must subpoena the House itself, at its discretion, and the House may or may not compel the congressman to testily. In short, the rules and regulations that are strangling the citizens of the United States do not apply on Capitol Hill. They know what they are doing at least to this extent. The pollution of legislation from Congress is matched by the pollution from congressional furnaces and congressional vehicles; the Environmental Protection Agency has no jurisdiction here. Congress is the 51st state. Wait! Congress is the first state; Hawaii is the 51st.
I went to work for congressman Ron Paul, a physician from Houston. He had been elected in an interim election when the seat was vacated by a long-term Texas Democrat who had resigned to accept a position on the Maritime Commission. Dr. Paul came to Washington in April. He was defeated by 268 votes (out of 193,000+) in November, and if his Special Report (June 1977) is to be believed, only about 3,100 of these votes, mostly for his opponent, were flagrantly illegal, indicating that for Texas politics, this was a fairly clean race. He was America's only Bicentennial congressman: elected and defeated in 1976.
Dr. Paul was as amateurish a politician as I have ever seen. He believed in principle and voted that way. He didn't have an administrative assistant, so he hired his own staff. He never went on junkets. He was consistently outvoted by 403 to 3, or 407 to 2. Instead of going to the endless rounds of lobbying "socials," where the booze flows, the food is superb (unless some cheapskate right-wing group is putting it on), and business is conducted, he would go home after work to his aunt's house out in the Virginia suburbs. He left his family in Texas, flew home on the weekends, and spent the time with his family instead of campaigning. He voted against NASA boondoggles, despite the fact that NASA was in his district. He voted no on everyone's boondoggles. In short, a clear-cut amateur. He lost.
Yet in his brief stay in Washington he made a lot of headlines, something which midterm, unknown, freshman congressmen don't do very often. He fought against abortion, gun control, inflation, and higher taxes, yet he confounded the conservative wing by fighting the B-1 bomber in favor of the cruise missile and the atomic submarine program. He opposed federal guarantees to the atomic power industry, another vote that astounded both liberals and conservatives. He baffled them all, simply because he voted small government, start to finish. No one in Washington—no one—does that on a consistent basis.
The day I walked in, I was told to draft an opposition statement on the IMF bill. I hadn't heard of the IMF bill. This was the disastrous piece of legislation that revised the Bretton Woods Agreements after 32 years and made the IMF the world's new engine of mass inflation ("The Transformation of the IMF," Remnant Review, August 4, 1976). The administration was pushing it with all its might. The Democratic liberals were pushing it. Henry Reuss was pushing it. So I sat down and eventually had 19 double-spaced typewritten pages cranked out. When shrunk by the typesetting process, my (Dr. Paul's) statement was 11 pages long—the only, opposition statement. In the Congressional Record, it was shrunk to 3.5 pages, yet it was word for word what I had submitted. If you think there is a lot of stuff spewed forth each day by government writers, you're correct. It boggles the mind. The bill finally was passed at 5:00 a.m. on the last day of the 94th Congress in the Senate's chambers. There was no opposition. (A trade had been made—a trade made necessary by one tactical error on our part, or so I have concluded: the IMF for the legalization of gold clause contracts.) One of the IMF bill's cosponsors who sat on the House Committee on Banking, Currency, and Housing, admitted to Dr. Paul that he really didn't know anything about the IMF. If he didn't know, you can be certain that at least 300 of the 435 House members don't know, and that may be too generous. It passed, ignorance or not.
So it went, bill after bill. The billions flowed. The opposition capitulated. The limited governmentalists were outtalked, outmaneuvered, outspent, and outvoted almost every time. It was one long, difficult, grinding series of defeats. It will continue to be so.
Is it any wonder that people with principles get eaten up and spit out by this system? How to manage 200 pages of Congressional Record every day, plus the hearings in committee, plus the Federal Register, plus the speeches on the road, plus the party (political organization) pressures, plus the party (riotous escape) pressures? No one can do it. No group can do it. The dreams of messianic legislation and comprehensive political predestination have not come to heavenly fruition, but they have driven mad those who had such visions. The pursuit of total planning has eaten up the legislators who assigned to themselves the role of minor gods. The work is killing, especially in the last 15 years. They are retiring in droves. Something like 50 percent of the people in the House today weren't there in the late 1960's. The whole system is collapsing, and both the conservative libertarians and ideological liberals know it, but the former can't do anything about it, and the latter won't do anything about it. They are caught on a sort of demonic treadmill to legislative oblivion.
The opponents of big government get ground down. They give up after three terms. These men have let their constituents down. One man always promised to lie low for three terms, get the ropes learned, and then really get things changed. With every term, he has voted for more and more welfare boondoggles. He chases secretaries, is not bright enough to read very much, and his staff is mediocre, meaning it's one of the better staffs. Yet he is considered one of the hard-liners. The pressure on them by their peers is enormous; indeed, this is the crucial factor in the decline of the opposition. Congress views itself as a club. The Senate is notorious in this respect. They have little use for the rabble in the House. They are gentlemen. Fortunately, like gentlemen, they don't get much accomplished every day. They are the brake on government planning—not by ideology, but by inertia. Inertia grinds down the conservative opposition, too. So the booze flows, the secretaries smile, and the wives get dumped. Yes, Virginia, by conservatives, too.
Let me tell you of the catalogue of horrors.
Seldom in the history of man have so many incompetents, cronies, idiots, goof-offs, hangers-on, and nincompoops been assembled in one geographical area. The mediocrity of the congressional staffs is, above all, the fact that struck me hardest. Grafters are to be expected in government, but these people are yo-yos. You would not believe how second-rate these people are. I am speaking about the conservative staffers. You are fortunate to find one good solid competent staffer per office.
It is not the lack of money. Congressmen can pay up to $36,000 per year to some staffers (it may be higher now). They could buy up the hottest of the hot-shots from the universities in every field, and I don't mean just newly graduated Ph.Ds. I mean their professors. You could buy one for his sabbatical year, year after year, getting big-name people in there who could call upon the services of students back home to do research. Nobody has thought of this, apparently. The only office that I saw that used outside people on a regular basis was Larry McDonald's. He got his money's worth out of the part-timers. Frankly, they were the sharp people on his staff.
What goes wrong? It's a complicated problem. Here is my evaluation. First, congressmen don't want to hire people smarter than they are. This reduces competence to levels undreamed of. Second, they don't hire anyone anyway. Their administrative assistants do the hiring. This leads to the most insidious aspect of the congressional bureaucracy problem: the administrative assistant. If there is a single source of opposition's failure, look here. Forget about the great conspiracy. Forget about pay-offs. Forget about their lack of time. Just look at the AA.
The AA is the top dog. He gets the $36,000, if anyone does. He gets the prestige. He hires and sometimes fires. And like any person in a no-contract, high-risk, high-pay job, he wants one thing above all: tenure. He can get it only in one way: be absolutely certain that no one coming in contact with the boss is more competent than he, the AA, is. This reduces the general competence of the staffs an additional notch. The AA is enormously defensive about his position. He sees to it that the level of incompetence is kept high by adhering to another unwritten rule: never hire anyone who hasn't had Hill experience. This screens out the threats to your position. Your competition is limited to the walking wounded: Hill rejects.
There should be a universal rule for any serious, dedicated congressman: no one making over $15,000 per year should be hired by the AA. Let the AA hire the secretaries. Yet, if anything, the rule is inverted: the congressman is very often exceedingly interested in hiring the secretary who makes $12,000 or less. Are you getting the picture?
Who hires the AA? The congressman. He draws from two possible pools of talent:
His campaign manager. This friendly fellow is noted for his ability to organize precincts, raise money from fat donors, compose fund-raising letters, schedule speeches for the candidate, possibly write speeches for the candidate, but certainly screen out controversial ideas from the candidate's speeches. He can organize an office staff out in Dubuque. He can get those volunteers to lick those stamps. He has won, so now he has an air of total confidence. Then he comes to Washington, where he knows absolutely nothing. He covers his insecurity with arrogance and pseudoconfidence. Outsiders can tell these guys nothing. So nothing is what they get shown. Then they hire the staff, generally out of the bodies from the campaign. The ready-made staff gets imported.
A professional Hill administrator. These guys are the chameleons of life. If you mated these guys with a jellyfish, the only thing you could produce would be a college president. They are noted for their nonideological professionalism—that is, lack of commitment to any idea other than survival. They pick and choose from other unemployed Hill professionals, all of whom must be less competent than the AA. The grey sludge of professionalism begins to clog whatever machinery the congressman had devised to "get things moving around Washington." If, by some element of good fortune, the new AA is in some way ideological, he is a "Hill ideologue," meaning one whose principled edges have been filed off by job insecurity, peer pressure, booze, junkets, and the lack of time to read anything more rigorous than the Washington Star. Gerald Ford would have been an ideological AA.
Let me give you an example of how tight a ship the typical AA runs, as far as screening is concerned. A brand-new congressman from a conservative Midwest district got elected. For openers, he did his initial hiring through the office of House Minority Leader Rhodes, no ideologue. Applicants couldn't possibly get through this wall of resistance. (Candidates are flooded with applications, and in despair, they turn the screening over to [probably] the campaign manager. So most of the staff is already hired when he arrives in Washington. He has no idea of what committee assignments he will get, or how much work needs to be done, or what kinds of skilled workers are needed. But he keeps on hiring.) The next stage was when he hit Washington—or, more accurately, brushed by Washington. He hired a "professional" AA, a mild liberal. This follows the usual rules of Congress: the liberals staff their offices with liberals and moderates, and the conservatives staff their offices with moderates and idiots. So an old friend of the congressman called him to tell him that I was available as a staffer. Fine, he said, have him apply. His secretary called me to set up an appointment. Unfortunately, the congressman spent only two days a week in Washington; the other five were spent back in the district. You couldn't get an appointment. So I called his office and of course was connected to the AA. "All candidates for employment are interviewed by me first," he announced. Naturally. I explained that his boss had called me directly. I wanted my appointment.
That threw him. I was told when the congressman might be in his office. I drove in. He had left, of course. This was the week before the House convened. "We don't need any more research people right now," the AA explained. "Congress doesn't begin until next week." I called a contact of mine and asked him how many bills were scheduled for introduction during the first week. "Oh, about 1,800," he replied. But our new congressman didn't need any research staff the week before. So I gave a copy of my Christian Economics book, autographed, plus a copy of my vita. The AA took them. The congressman never called back. About a month later, after I had joined the program at Ruff Times as a consultant, I happened to call my friend, the congressman's friend. Why didn't he ever call me, I asked. "That's funny," came the reply. "He asked me why you never came in for an interview. He asked his AA if you had come in, and the AA had told him he had never heard of you."
This is normal on Capitol Hill. The congressmen barely run (their own offices, and the newer they are, the more dependent they are on the "professional" AA. The bureaucratization of the staffs is continual. The people back home who gave money to elect the guy, who slaved to work for him, and who now think their work is at last over, with their reward sure, now watch in horror and disbelief as his voting record sinks slowly into the sludge. They wonder how it happened. "That's politics," they say to themselves. Not quite; that's bureaucracy that has met no political resistance from the folks back home.
Most offices are run poorly. They are inefficient to a fault. But they are getting better. This is dangerous.
One new device is the computer. A computer is now available that will do at least all of the following. (1) Record all positions taken in letters to the congressman from his constituents. (2) Sort out all yes or no letterwriters by the vote taken in each letter. (3) Sort out yes or no positions by precinct, zip code, or groups of precincts. (4) Compose letters to people who write in, shifting paragraphs or sentences to make each letter look individualized. (5) Check the voting record of other congressmen. (6) Find out the location of any bill in the system: sponsors, preliminary votes, committee, etc. (7) Locate millions of documents now in the Library of Congress tapes. This is only a small fraction of what these machines will do. Putting machines like this in the hands of incumbents and their staffs is to cement the present system into permanence short of political upheaval. Rental fee: $1,000/month.
The Library of Congress will locate and xerox a copy of any document up to 50 pages (two book pages usually fit on one sheet) free of charge—unlimited numbers. They now require a separate request for each document, an unheard-of burden on the staffs. Every few days a computerized print-out of hundreds of newly available materials for some 100 possible topics is made available to staffs, just send in one of these tear-off cards, and the Library of Congress sends you a xerox. They do ask that you limit yourself to a dozen topics, please.
Any congressional staffer can sign his boss's name (on the automatic name-signing machine) to a letter requesting the Library of Congress research staff to trace down the history of practically anything. It may take two weeks to get a reply, or it may take three days. Let a challenger match this service.
Then there is the kingpin of all congressional elections. His name is Frank Privilege. Any congressman can mail out all his newsletters free of mail charge, with very few restrictions. You may have seen that little note at the bottom of congressional junk mail: "Not Printed At Government Expense." True enough. It is mailed at government expense, and it gets first-class treatment. The envelopes are also free. Now you see the incumbent's advantage every time he mails a mass flyer (four times a year, possibly)? Printing costs might run $2,500 each time. Match that, challenger, in a contest in which name identification accounts for about 70 percent of the action. He spends, say, $10,000 worth of printing expenses to get $112,000 worth of postage and envelopes. sends down the computer-produced mailing list to the Republican or Democrat printers (who make $70,000 a year; these are private operations), and they are shipped out. Not bad…unless you're a challenger.
If you need 24-hour mail service for a letter, or anything else, it's available, free of charge: "Orange-bag service."
If you want to call anywhere in the continental US free of charge, 24-hours a day, it's yours. Every office has two WATS lines. It's a nice, nontaxable fringe benefit for staffers.
Need a haircut? It will cost you $2 at any of the congressional barbershops, one in each building.
Want a good, subsidized meal? In the House, you're out of luck. They serve the worst food imaginable. I hear the Senate has good food. I believe it. The only amusing thing in the Longworth Buildings cafeteria is the middle-aged black lady who treats all customers equally. If you don't give her your order instantly as you move down the line, she says, "Walk and talk, honey, walk and talk." She is efficient, and she expects everyone else to be efficient. Alone among citizens in these United States, she seems to get some efficiency out of at least a segment of Congress. If you want something to eat, my friend, you talk as you walk, whether you're Mo Udall, Barry Goldwater, Jr., or some summer intern. Equality reigns here, and only here, on Capitol Hill.
WHENCE THE LEGISLATION?
If the staffs are incompetent, and the congressmen have no time, where do the 1,500-page tax-reform bills come from? They come from the congressional committee staffs, which are a cut above the office staffs (but not by much). They also come from special-interest groups. I suspect that if a person wanted to make a significant contribution to our understanding of our day, he would trace the authorship of a dozen major pieces of leftist legislation back to their sources. I'd tell you one thing: the office staffs don't create the prominent laws that get the headlines and cost the billions. The executive has tremendous influence in this area, and I suspect that it is through the executive bureaucratic staffs that significant batches of the legislation get submitted to Congress. This is where the think tanks like Brookings Institution get the ball rolling. Congress is an uncreative institution today.
This means that limited govemmentalists can effect very little positive change. At best, they can elect men to Congress who, for a time, will vote no. But when the president has the option of firing about 143 of the 143,000 people in HEW, elections mean very little—national elections, that is. The new men in Congress who have the willingness to submit new pieces of legislation do not have the staffs to write it, the knowledge of the system to push it through, the prestige to get cosponsors, or the media experience to force the leadership's hands. Congressman Paul did not get a single piece of legislation enacted, although he came close on a couple of issues. Most freshmen congressmen don't even get close.
Paul was an amateur, as I have said. He had no AA. So he hired me and Dr. John Robbins (who is more conservative and a lot meaner than I am) and Bruce Bartlett (who writes for the Freeman and has an M.A. in history)—all newcomers. We had the best staff I saw in my limited experience on the Hill. We cranked out more dissenting opinions in a shorter period of time than any other opposition office. On some issues, such as monetary policy, Dr. Paul had the automatic support of several of the old-time conservative congressmen, who couldn't keep up with banking developments. Our hastily assembled staff was better qualified than any we knew of on the House side. Within the conservative ranks, only Sen. Jesse Helms had anything as good. He, too, is an ideologue, a newcomer, and vulnerable in the next election. He, too, refuses to vote any party's line. He, too, was successful before he came to Congress.
There are steps that can be taken, though limited, that might reduce some of these defects in the offices of future congressmen. But there will be few challengers to be elected by libertarians and conservatives in the near future, and few changes in Congress. I am a believer in local politics. My experience in Washington didn't change my belief. Those who believe in political salvation at the national level are certain to be disappointed. I knew it was bad before I arrived. When I left, I knew what an optimist I had been before. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse.
Gary North is a prolific author and the editor of Remnant Review, from which this article is adapted.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Confessions of a Washington Reject".