Washington for Beginners
Grovel to senators, be nice to civil servants, and learn how to leak
Weekly Standard, JAN 01, 2001
WASHINGTON will soon be inundated with a fresh wave of political appointees. This being the first Democratic to Republican transition in 20 years, many of the new people will find themselves in the Washington pressure cooker for the first time. And quite a few are leaving corporate America with its well-established rules for a city that operates under a completely different set. How they cope will be important to the success of George W. Bush.
One of the most important things new political appointees (particularly those from the business world) need to understand is how diffused power is in Washington. In a corporation, when the CEO makes a decision, that’s that. Not so in Washington. A presidential decision is usually just the first step in a long, slow policy process that can last for years.
The president may nominally be the CEO of USA, Inc., but unlike in most corporations, he will have to contend with a hyperactive board of directors called Congress. And whereas even the biggest companies have perhaps two dozen board members, the board of USA, Inc., has 535 members, divided into two equally powerful and competing factions — the House and Senate. And within each faction there are sub-factions — majority and minority, leadership, committees, and a multitude of regional and other informal power blocs.
Navigating these waters is tough enough for experienced pros. For newcomers, it is not just like being dumped into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim, it is like being dropped into the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
In the short run, the most important thing for most appointees to know is which Senate committee will confirm them. Just getting a hearing before the relevant committee is a major effort, requiring vast amounts of preparation in answering questions from committee staff long before one has the opportunity to meet an actual senator. Then the committee has to vote out your appointment and the majority leader must schedule a vote by the full Senate. In the meantime, an individual senator can block your appointment for any reason whatsoever and not even have to say what the reason is to anyone, least of all you. And they often do so for reasons completely unrelated to you. Sometimes such “holds” can go on for months — and senators have far more stamina than most appointees.
In the meantime, you have probably quit your job, taken a big pay cut, spent hundreds of hours and considerable funds filling out vast numbers of reports, and are separated from your family. You cannot buy a new house until you are confirmed, and you are being paid as a consultant well below the pay grade for the job you have been appointed to.
Assuming you are confirmed by the Senate and finally take office as a newly minted assistant secretary or whatever, you will discover that your troubles have just begun. You will find that you cannot hire or fire most of your staff, because they are part of the Civil Service. You will determine that practically every new idea you have has already been tried before. And you will learn that there is a rigid pecking order among departments and agencies, and that you are closer to the bottom than the top.
New appointees will also come to realize that the Washington policy-making process is not limited to those who work in government, either in the administration or on Capitol Hill. We all know about lobbyists, but think tanks, interest groups, and the press are just as important.
Getting used to dealing with the press is especially tricky for newcomers. My best advice is never to say anything “on the record” — that means reporters can quote you directly and mention you by name. Always insist that your comments are “off the record,” meaning that you can be quoted, but not identified. Better still is to stay “on background,” which means that you cannot be quoted or cited in any way by a reporter. Of course, reporters are bound only by their honor to uphold such commitments. If they decide to blow your cover, you have no recourse whatsoever.
Keep in mind that the press is the enemy of all administrations, because its primary goal is to know your secrets. Most reporters are liberal Democrats, but this is small comfort to Democratic administrations — and also not an insurmountable obstacle for Republicans. Ultimately, all administrations have one critical advantage and that is a monopoly on information. How, where, when, and to whom an administration chooses to impart that information can make or break careers in the media. With skill, any administration can play the press like a violin.
A note on “leaking”: All administrations hate leaks, which are unauthorized information given to the press. In practice, however, leaks seldom do any real harm. The main objection to them is that higher-ups in the chain of command lose the opportunity to divulge the information themselves to their favored reporters, who often repay such generosity with “puff pieces” in their papers.
Leaks can also be a very powerful way to get an administration’s story through a hostile media. Thought of as exclusive news items, leaks can force reporters to run with stories they would never publish if sent out as a press release. Especially if the information comes to them close to a deadline, they have little choice but to run the item with your “spin” on it. They don’t have time to check it and cannot afford to risk losing the story to a competitor. During the Reagan years, master leakers like James Baker and David Gergen were notorious for getting good press in liberal papers through the skillful use of this method.
One way to stay on the good side of the press is simply to be successful. Reporters respect power, and they have an infallible sense of who’s got it and who doesn’t. The dirty secret, however, is that no one has real power. Power in Washington largely consists in the appearance of power. In other words, those who are thought to have power actually have it. That is why being “out of the loop” is the worst thing that can happen to anyone in Washington. It means they have no power at all.
If all this sounds silly, it is. But it is also the way the world works. Those who learn the rules fast can prosper quickly. Those who fail had best get out of town as soon as possible, while their reputations are intact. The press are like hyenas. They can smell blood from far away and quickly pounce on and devour the weak. It is not just because it’s their job — they do it for fun. That is why they joined the Washington press corps in the first place.
So, good luck to all the newcomers. You are going to need it. Most of you won’t be around very long — you’ll stay just long enough to get a line on your resume and then move on to greener pastures. The rest will either be successful and join the permanent Washington establishment, or be run out of town, an embarrassment to everyone who ever knew them. Sadly, over the last quarter century, there seem to be fewer of the former and more of the latter.
Bruce Bartlett has worked at the White House, the Treasury Department, the Senate and House, and several Washington think tanks in the course of his career.