Thursday, January 12, 2006

Barry Carries on the Reagan Legacy of Excess

When I lived in Washington I dreamed of having a roll up the sleeves, get down to saving the city kind of mayor. Instead, for most of my time in the city, I had Marion Barry. Once just after the Reagan inaugural, I was riding by the District Building on Pennsylvania Avenue and the mayor passed us in his limousine. That's when it struck me: with Barry in office there were going to be two men who commonly cruised Pennsylvania Avenue in a limo, Reagan and Barry, and that what buoyed Barry now was not Black Pride so much as his understanding of the glitz of the Reagan Era, the usual political pieties and platitudes surrounded by money and people flaunting it. He was going to prove that he was king of the city, not Reagan. Of course, all the wealth of black American could not match the roll that empowered a phenomena like Reagan. So Barry needed cocaine.

As a historian I know Washington has not had many mayors, and traditionally the art of being the mayor of Washington was having a smooth relationship with the powers in Congress, but that was before the age of TV and media focus. As Fisher points out in his article Memo to Barry: Enough paying so much attention to Barry only encourages him. But Fisher doesn't address the fundamental problem of being a mayor in DC. How can you be a mayor in a city conceived and dedicated to putting the federal government first in everything? And if like Barry you take democracy at its word, and the voters said "You de Man, Marion," how can you not be true to yourself and carry on much like Barry has? To eschew the grandeur and any aid to empowerment in the context of modern Washington is to admit from the start that you are a loser.


p.s. check out my on-line history of early Washington The Seat of Empire

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Why There is No Good History of Lobbying

Anne Applebaum's op-ed piece Lobbygate Deja Vu takes us over to the UK for historical parallels and only back a decade. Curious how there is no ready reference to bribery scandals in Washington. Perhaps it has to do with congressmen's seemingly inexhaustible ability to stage their shock in the face of a bribe. Early in its institutional history Congress took so high a ground when faced with a bribe that it's been flooded with lobbyists ever since. Witness the high dudgeon in 1817 when a Col. John Anderson tried to get Congress to compensate settlers in the Michigan Territory for damages caused by the British during the War of 1812. Rep. Williams of North Carolina took the floor and stunned his colleagues:

"Mr. Speaker, I lay before the House a letter addressed and delivered to me by a person named Colonel John Anderson. That man has mistaken me much. Wherever I am known, this place or the country from whence I came, no attempt of the kind would have been made. I feel it is my duty to lay the letter and my statement thereon, made by myself, before the House. My feelings are too much excited, nor would it be my duty to make any remarks on the subject. It is for the House to determine what is to be done."

Then Williams read the letter in which Anderson offered him $500 "as part pay, for the extra trouble I give you; I will present it to you so soon as I receive some from the government...." You can read the rest of the letter at Annals of Congress . Of course Anderson asked that it be kept confidential but Williams immediately had several colleagues boarding with him read it. They all agreed that it must be made public, read in the House, and the Sergeant at Arms arrest Anderson and bring him to the House to be punished. That was done but eventually Anderson, a veteran after all, was let off with a reprimand.

The point I make in my on-line history of early Washington, The Seat of Empire, is that the principled stand Congress took in turning away a paltry $500, provided public cover for its embracing the web of influence that in the long run could make influential congressmen much more money. The favored method of bribery in that era was a loan that did not have to repaid.

This year's scandal features millions of dollars from Indian tribes protecting their casinos -- small beer compared to the big corporate gaming of the Washington swamp. High dudgeon once again will probably serve only as cover for the pervasive lowlife dealing.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Throw the money off the train

A few days ago I heard the cry "outlaw fundraisers in Washington," now Ruth Marcus in Derail These Fundraisers doesn't want the Barton Train to roll. At least he's in his district. The local wildlife might be able to gobble some of the crumbs swept off the train.

Now I shouldn't say this because up here in the real swamp, election day can be fun. There's a good spread of cookies and donuts and ginger ale and plenty of good talk -- last year about the wolf on the island -- a real one not the Republican one. (I should say, since history is my bag, that when George Washington ran for the Virginia House, he provided a more considerable spread with good liquor to boot.)Anyway, here's my idea: completely deregulate elections and allow candidates to buy votes. This will energize the electorate. When folks see votes in the swing states being bought for $100, they will start thinking when the pollsters call. We will grow that undecided vote. Plus the pols will no longer bribe their districts and states with big government projects, new roads, airports, all of which drain those wetlands vital to my survival.

So let old Barton have his train, let it stop at every station, let those corporations load it with money and let old Barton divvy it out to plain folks who, I hope, will go hemming and hawing all the way to the bank and then see what anybody else has to offer. And then in the privacy of the votiing booth, they might surprise everyone and vote for an honest man.

Swamp Minder

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Post Story on Lobbying a Bit Off

Can't we stop this idiotic tying of the word "lobbyist" to the Willard Hotel. In 1808 Congress debated a bill to move the capital back to Philadelphia. One of the proponents argued that by going back to a real city members would benefit from expert advice offered by "the lobby." But author of the Washington Post "Can I Lobby You" doesn't have to be a historian to realize that with Congress passing a new tariff bill about every four years, it was not immune to influence peddlers. By the 1830s when the House Ways and Means Committee got down to work, the hallways outside were crawling with lobbyists.

As for the main point of the article, the Bill of Rights guarantee "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," refers to a transparent tradition of trying to influence legislative bodies. In the 1790s for example people formally assembled in public, elected a chairman, discussed the burning issue of the day, drew up resolves, debated them, passed them, signed them and published them or sent the signed resolutions to Congress. That was the upright American way of doing it. Everyone frowned at the idea of raising money and hiring some old congressman to wine and dine politicians. Of course, they did it because it worked. In the 1820s Ramsey Crooks, John Jacob Astor's assistant, set up shop in Brown's Hotel just below Capitol Hill and wrote the bills he wanted passed, wrote the speeches in support of the bills, and stayed in town and entertained until the bills became law.