Saturday, February 23, 2008

What's Wrong With Washington

February 23, 2008, 8:00 p.m.

Whether it's inspecting beef or regulating broadcasters, few government agencies have anything like the numbers of staff members they would need to do the jobs Congress hands them.

So it was when I was a commissioner at the FCC.

On one occasion it got so bad that we didn't have enough secretaries to type up (this was before computers) the confidential staff memos to the commissioners regarding pending cases and proposed rules.

The memos arrived on time anyway. "How were you able to do this?" I asked. I was informed the lawyers practicing before the agency had offered their firm's secretaries to do the typing of these confidential documents for us -- documents regarding their clients' interests!

Given the cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated I can't say I was surprised this was done. But I was truly stunned to discover that no one could understand why I might think there was something wrong with doing so.

I was reminded of that experience this past week with the revelations regarding Senator John McCain's close ties to lobbyists.

Washington is awash with lobbyists. There are multiples more of them than there are elected officials. They swarm the halls of the House and Senate office buildings and the Capitol. The fill Washington's restaurants, and the fairways of its golf courses. Much of the multi-millions in "campaign contributions" passes through their hands on its way to insuring that virtually all who want to be re-elected for life will be. And these lobbyists are usually in the company of elected and appointed officials and their top staff aides.

So I was not surprised that McCain -- in spite of his leadership in campaign finance and lobbying reform efforts -- was often in the company of lobbyists.

What surprised me was his seeming blindness to the matter of appearances.

Indeed, that was the real story in the much-maligned New York Times report -- as its headline suggested. Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, David D. Kirkpatrick and Stephen Labaton, "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk," New York Times, February 21, 2008.

In spite of the Time's critics' efforts to turn this into a "politics makes strange bedfellows" story about his friendship with an attractive female lobbyist, to the extent the possibility of an "affair" with a younger woman was involved at all in the Times' story it was in the context of the concerns of protective staffers regarding appearances -- rather than their, or others', passing moral judgment on behavior that had in fact occurred.

These staff members were doing precisely what they should have been doing.

In fact, I wrote that responsibility into the job description of my chief of staff. He was obliged to be unflinchingly candid when watching and assessing my speech and actions -- dressing me down if necessary, anytime he heard stories, or observed behavior or language that he thought might be capable of being turned into a problem by our critics.

Based on the Times' story, it looks like that's what McCain's staffers were doing. They thought having an attractive female lobbyist, who represented clients with business before his committee, hanging around the office, telling those clients she had a special "in" with the Senator, traveling with him on her client's corporate jets, was problematical -- as much or more because of the conflict of interest such a friendship might be seen to create as for the possibility of rumors of an "affair."

For the record, my practice both as Maritime Administrator and FCC commissioner was to limit meetings with the representatives of regulated companies to my office. They were citizens; they were entitled to be heard. (Of course, so were those whose interests were at stake -- consumers, taxpayers -- those who couldn't even afford to organize, let alone pay for Washington representation. To the extent possible I sought out such citizens' groups as existed for their points of view as well.) But I thought the common practice of having meals with lobbyists, attending entertainment events, traveling together (especially on company planes), or playing in golf matches together was unseemly. I wanted to avoid even the appearance -- let alone the reality -- of a "friendship" entering into a decision.

My concern about such matters was not widely shared.

So from my perspective it was the Washington Post's story, almost more than that of the New York Times, that was the more significant. Michael D. Shear and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "The Anti-Lobbyist, Advised by Lobbyists," Washington Post, February 22, 2008, p. A1.

The Post details the extent to which McCain has surrounded himself, primarily at the top levels of his campaign, but also in his Senate office, with lobbyists -- present and former, paid and unpaid. (Obviously, someone being paid by a corporation who is, in fact, putting in their time on a candidate's campaign, can creates rather significant legal problems regarding campaign contribution regulations.)

The Post's story does not suggest, nor would I, that McCain's decisions as a Senator are affected by the presence of those who are helping him in his quest for the presidency (although the Times' story details some troubling instances of his interaction with the FCC on behalf of one of his woman friend's clients -- an interaction the FCC Chair apparently characterized as both very unusual and inappropriate). The Post does point out, however, that "McCain has at least 59 federal lobbyists raising money for his campaign, compared with 33 working for Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani and 19 working for Democrat Clinton."

What I find troubling is what apparently troubled his staffers, the Times' reporters and headline writer ("For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk"). It is his seeming acceptance of the way Washington does business, it is his insensitivity to the possible reactions of those outside the beltway to such relationships, his belief that because he has sponsored campaign finance and ethics legislation that appearances simply don't matter when it comes to him (presumably he would add, "So long as he is not, personally, doing anything illegal"). It is a reflection on his good judgment.

From time to time I make reference to what I call the "sub-governments" that hold the real power in Washington. Here is one such speech excerpt:

Most kids learn about the three branches of government: "legislative" (Congress), "executive" (president) and "judicial" (courts). But Washington doesn't work through three branches. It works through the dozens of sub-governments . . ..

Sub-governments grow under rocks, away from the media's spotlight. They require an industry dominated by a few firms that grow rich with government help, whether through subsidies, price supports, tax breaks, government contracts, use of public lands, bailouts or tariffs.

A sub-government's membership includes a small, incestuous collection of one industry's corporate and trade association executives, their lawyers, lobbyists and publicists, its trade papers' journalists, congressional sub-committee members and staff, and the relevant agency's employees. They eat and play together, literally inter-marry, and protect each other."
Nicholas Johnson, "Challenges Facing Global Leadership: Refocusing the International Leadership Forum," La Jolla, California, April 27, 2002.

That's just the way it is. That's the way Washington works.

Like the Federal Communications Bar Association's secretaries typing up the FCC's confidential memoranda, I can't be surprised that thousands of persons in Washington naturally identify with the sub-government of which they are a part (rather than "the public interest," or even their own institution, such as Congress).

However, I can be deeply disappointed at what a statistically insignificant minority are able to see what is wrong with this picture.

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