Introduction to the Washington, D.C., Establishment - dummies

Introduction to the Washington, D.C., Establishment

By Greg Rushford

Washington, D.C.,’s most precious resource is its inhabitants. After all, without the people who actually run the federal government and drive the policymaking process, Washington would be only a smallish city with some interesting museums and a handful of Greco-Roman monuments to dead people — in other words, a lot like Europe.

D.C. is clearly much more than that, and its small scale (compared to great political-financial capitals like London and Tokyo) obscures the fact that today Washington exerts enormous influence — arguably greater influence on global politics and business than any other city in the world.

To know Washington is not just a matter of knowing one’s way from the National Portrait Gallery to the nearest Starbucks. It is essential to understand who lives there and what these people actually do to make the U.S. government work.

You notice quickly upon meeting a few members of the Washington establishment that virtually no one is really “from” Washington. Instead, these people usually come to Washington early in their careers, maybe even for college. Most are not digging for gold, at least as a primary motivation; Wall Street and Silicon Valley offer much better returns for the young and intelligent.

They come to D.C. because the work of the U.S. government has its own unique rewards: power and the chance to actually make a difference in the world.

Likewise, professionals from the nation’s leading banks and law firms may make far less money and squeeze into less luxurious offices when they come to work as staffers at the Department of Treasury or Justice. But the issues they deal with are usually far more interesting and consequential.

Who are all these people who call Washington home? Not the President or members of Congress. While they are indispensable to the policymaking process, their time in the city is restricted by term limits, constituents, or seemingly inevitable scandal.

True, some members of Congress settle in Washington permanently after they turn in their congressional office keys. (Those who settle permanently before leaving office often find that fact comes back to bite at election time.)

The real Washington establishment, however, consists of the people under the radar who spend decades there. They hold various titles — federal bureaucrat, lobbyist, lawyer, journalist, consultant, think-tank fellow — but they are alike in being inextricably linked to the policymaking process. They’re the ones who make the trains run on time.

Federal bureaucrats

These are the dark-suited types with the lanyards of security cards. For many of them, the work is not glamorous. Neither is the pay, at least compared to what some could make on Wall Street or in private practice. But the devoted individuals who burrow deep in the bureaucracy and climb their way up the hierarchy can achieve enormous influence and power.

J. Edgar Hoover, for instance, became one of the most powerful men in America by turning the FBI into his personal fiefdom. Regulators, to take another example, can hold the attention of entire industries.

Every D.C. operation, from the lowliest agency to the largest department, endeavors to defend and expand its own turf.

Lobbyists in D.C.

At the most basic level, lobbyists strive to influence policy, which is actually what nearly everyone in Washington does (or tries to do). Why else would you want to be in Washington? So, is everyone in Washington a lobbyist?

Other voices in the debate in Washington

Many other groups and individuals belong to the city’s permanent establishment. Among them are think-tank fellows, journalists, long-serving foreign diplomats, activists, and members of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and international organizations. They may have widely different jobs on paper, but they all, through various means and channels, take part in the policymaking process.

Ironically enough, many of these other voices often define themselves as outsiders in comparison with the insiders who allegedly decide everything behind closed doors. In fact, many of the outsiders are as much a part of the establishment as the insiders they often decry.