The hottest political book of the summer, "This Town" by Mark Leibovich, is being read in Washington with equal parts embarrassment and delight. It is a vivid, detailed picture of the country's ruling elite, filled with tales of ruthless networking, fake friendships and a sensationalist media. But beneath the juicy anecdotes is a depressing message about corruption and dysfunction.
If you are trying to understand why Washington works so badly for the rest of the country, the book says that it works extremely well for its most important citizens: the lobbyists. The permanent government of the United States is no longer defined by party or a branch but by a profession comfortably encamped around the federal coffers. The result is thatWashington has become the wealthiest city in the nation, and its relative position has actually improved over the past five years, during the worst recession in 75 years. The country might be struggling, but K?Street is not.
Leibovich describes a city in which money has trumped power as the ultimate currency. Lobbyists today hold the keys to what everyone in government - senator or staffer - is secretly searching for: a post-government source of income. He cites anAtlantic magazine report that says that in 1974, only 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists; today, that number is 42 percent for members of the House and 50 percent for senators.
The result is bad legislation. Look at any bill today: They are gargantuan documents filled with thousands of giveaways. The act that created the Federal Reserve in 1913 was only 31 pages. The 1933 Glass-Steagall legislation that regulated banking was 37 pages. The current version of that law, the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill, is 849 pages, with thousands of pages of additional rules. The Affordable Care Act runs more than 2,000 pages. Bills have become so vast because they are qualified by provisions, exceptions and exemptions put in by the very industry being targeted - a process that academics call "regulatory capture."
And from the conclusion:
Taking money out of politics is a mammoth challenge. Perhaps the best that one could hope for would be to limit instead what Congress can sell. In other words, enact a thorough reform of the tax code, ridding it of the thousands of special exemptions, credits and deductions that are institutionalized, legalized corruption.
The most depressing aspect of Leibovich's book is how utterly routine all of the influence-peddling has become. In 1990, Ramsay MacMullen, a distinguished Yale historian of Rome, published a book that took on one of the central questions of his field: Why did the greatest empire in the history of the world collapse in the 5th century? The root cause, he explained, was political corruption, which had become systemic in the late Roman Empire. What was once immoral became accepted as standard practice, and what was once illegal was celebrated as the new normal. Many decades from now, a historian looking at where America lost its way could use "This Town" as a primary source.
David Fuller's view A most important strength for a mature democracy is that it can accept criticism from within, without suppression or any form of reprisal. The USA passes this test. However, a democracy will only be successful if its leaders regain and retain the strength of character and vision to correct its obvious shortcomings. This requires a communitarian spirit, rather than a 'me first' attitude.Back to top