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I've spent the past 20 years of my life working in government, at all levels, mostly in the state of Texas, where I achieved the highest position one can achieve without being elected to office.  I'm a proud Yellow Dog of the old school and for the last three years I've been in Washington.  Washington politics works radically different than the way we do things back in Austin.  Not better, not worse...but different.

And though I'm an old hand at making things work in government, coming to Washington and learning a new game has been a culture shock to me.  I never realized how little Americans really know about how this town works (and doesn't work).  Even those of us that are politically savvy cannot really appreciate the Washington process until we've lived.  

For your information - and for my own catharsis - this is the first in an occasional series of diaries on my life in the Beltway.  

I work for a large government agency.  It doesn't matter which one - nor does it really matter what my position is.  However, let's just say it's not the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee and I'm not a janitor.  

The first thing you need to know about Washington, DC is that it's a closed system.  There might as well be sentries stationed at the Beltway entrance ramps to keep out the influx of non-Washington thinking...and people.  Washington likes to present itself as an expansive cosmopolitan city, like the other great capitals of the world, but's it's not.  It's essentially an artificial city-state.  As we all know, it was built on a swamp on some real estate nobody wanted - but which was close enough to George Washington's personal estates to allow him to make mad cash off of the place, as a partner in the local brick works, canal, etc.  The city was literally built on a tradition of using government largesse to pad private account books.  

The Washington of the 18th and 19th centuries was nothing like the Washington of today.  Old Washington was seedy and dirty.  It was a working city - a hot, nasty "hard duty" station, filled with half built buildings, chop houses, a smelly canal, hookers, and mosquitos.  The Washington of today is really the Washington of FDR and JFK.  Franklin, for the most part, built all the modern buildings that give Washington it's look as a world capital and Jack cleaned up the city.  He got the strip clubs off Pennsylvania Avenue and made Foggy Bottom the kind of place elites wanted to live in.  

Washington's heydey was the 1950's.  That's when it hit its highwater mark as the nerve center of the Free World's Cold War against international Communism.  And the 1950's is where Washington has remained.  It's still a place where young men wear seersucker suits and bow ties, with short sleeved button-down shirts.  Women still wear dark dress suits with pearls.  Avoiding the use of "new technology" is seen as something that's desirable.  My office, for instance, didn't get desktop computers until the mid-1990's - and the ones we currently have aren't even fit for word processing.  Obama is the first president to use a laptop and Blackberry routinely.  And the Oval Office still doesn't have a proper computer.  Writing out your work on legal pads is not seen as ineffecient, but as an heroic defiance of the onslaught of the outside world.  

Washington is a sleepy town - a working town.  It's one of the world's top tourist attractions, but the people who live and work in Washington float above all that.  After six months in the city, the tourists become invisible...the streets might as well be empty.  You begin to learn which bars and coffee shops the tourists don't go to.  A few local pub owners pride themselves on being "for the locals" and are actively hostile to tourists.  (Pro Tip: The Post Pub across from the Washington Post building is the bar you go to if you want old Washington.  Obvious tourists might not be served.)  

Locals learn to visit the Monuments at night and the Smithsonian - never.  Most government workers don't live in DC and commute in (hence the traffic and crowded trains.)  Others have weekend houses in their home states or at Cape Cod or the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  I confess to being a weekend Pennsylvanian, myself.  In short, Washington empties out at night.  Downtown is the sole domain of tourists and drunken interns by 8pm.  

The best analogy for Washington is the French royal palace and estate of Versailles during that nation's ancien regime. The French monarchs decided the best way to manage their unruly aristocrats was to gather them altogether in a single artifical city, isolate them, and keep an eye on them.  As such, the government became insulated to the uncomfortable reality outside.  

The Washington Caste System

Understanding how Washington works means understanding that it functions based on a caste system - an aristocracy, if you will - just like old Versailles.  Though the President, on paper, is co-equal with Congress and the SCOTUS, Washington is the President's town.  Virtually everyone here works for him and the Executive Branch has, by far, the largest footprint in town.  Capital Hill is thought of merely as an enclave into which one "must go" on unpleasant errands.  It's rare when government workers revolve their jobs through the three branches.  

The Inner Sanctum

At the center of Washington sits the White House.  It occupies the heart of town like a spider in the middle of its web.  A lot of people work "for the White House,"  but that doesn't always mean what it sounds like it means.  You can work "for the White House" and never set foot in that building.  The Eisenhower Executive Office Building, for example, is filled with "White House staffers" - most of whom will never catch a wiff of Obama's aftershave.  

One can measure one's level of power in Washington by the location of one's office and, literally, by the location of one's parking spot.  If you can pull your car through the secure White House gate, park, and walk directly into the West Wing annex, then you are, truly, a person of immense power.  This power is derived, quite simply, from your access to the president and his immediate staff.  Your influence, literally, is derived from your proximity to the Boss.  

I plan to write a further diary later on about exactly how this sytem works.  But in short, power is derived in Washington based on your access to higher levels of power.  If you can get your ideas, your white papers, and your memos into the hands of important people - then you can be said to have power.  You can be a high ranking appointee and not have an ounce of influence, or you can be a middling level civil servant and have virtually unlimited access.  It's all based on how you play the game.

Dukes and Lords

In the wake of 9-11, the question on everyone's lips was: why can't agencies in Washington communicate?  Why can't the FBI, the CIA, and NSA all talk to each other?  Simple.  Every government agency is it's own fiefdom.  Each agency is run by a presidential appointee who acts as the the President's viceroy within that agency.  They have near absolute power to run their little kingdom as they see fit.  And, with their advice and consent, the president then appoints a full roster of "Senior Executive Service" staffers who are placed in the leadership roles of these agencies.  

These "SES'ers" make up the ranks of department heads, chiefs, special advisors, special assistants, etc.  They are typically harvested from the ranks of the senior civil service (Grades GS 13-15) or, in rarer cases, from outside the government.  They tend to be appointed to their position at a time when their personal politics and outlook are favored by the sitting administration - though they may hold these positions through multiple administrations, regardless of political change.  A good SES'er, once they achieve that position, learns quickly the art of garnering favor with whatever administration runs Washington.  In all honesty, it's too heavy a task to completely clean house on all presidentially appointed positions every four or eight years.  

Each SES'er tends to view their little area of the government as its own microcosm of the larger government as a whole.  Like a feudal lord, they're allowed to do their own thing - paint the walls how they like, use software that may or may not be standard, hire contractors (or not) to perform certain functions, etc.  As a result, the whole government is essentially stovepiped.  Because there is no uniformity or standardization across the board in any single agency, there can be no uniformity across the whole of government.  As a result, agencies can't be expected to "talk" to one another because offices within those agencies don't even "talk" to one another.  

The Squires

At the bottom of the governmental hierarchy is the career civil service staff.  This is the "meat and taters" of government - the people who do the work.  They are hired based on a rigorous process of competition (which, incidentally, is weighted heavily towards favoring military veterans) based on their skillset.  The upper levels of the civil service have the same pay cap as SES staff members (though they cannot compete for the HUGE cash awards SES'ers are allowed access to).  So you can go through your entire career as a civil servant, make just as much money, and have just as much influence as an appointee without the added risk of being able to be easily fired.  As a result, the civil service is a deeply entrenched institution.  To run the government effeciently - to get things done - no matter who the president is, they have to have the support of the civil service.  

Civil Servants are good people...they're the "working class" of Washington.  They tend to lean Democratic because, except at agencies like the FBI or the Pentagon that favor authoritarian employees in the first place, Dems are favorable to supporting the government.  There is however, an argument that the mandate to give veteran's preference in civil service hiring is actually a backdoor attempt to force the civil service further to the right, politically.  

Civil servants have the power of the purse and the power of boots on the ground.  A powerful civil servant that runs a procurement office or a human resources department can cause any given agenda item that comes within their sphere of influence to crash and burn.  Or they can back it, fund it, and support it, making it a huge success.  In short, White House administrations that shit on government workers often find it hard to get government workers to do their bidding - and they have virtually no power to fire and replace them.  


Non-governmental Institutions.  Lobbiests.  Public interest firms.  Concerned citizens groups.  These organizations are the bread and butter of Congress and a huge pain in the ass for the Executive Branch.  They get their agenda passed by pouring unheard of amounts of cash, prime rib, and golf into Congress.  Congress loves money, steak, and fucking off on the links more than their own mothers and are, frankly, bought cheap.  However, these organizations have far more limited power to influence the Executive Branch, due to lobbying restrictions.  Therefore, their power is derived from the "power of the threat."  They can continually threaten to sick their buddies in Congress and in the press on the Executive Branch at any time if they don't get their way. NGO's that are good at this are to be feared, others are typically just ignored.  If you want to start an NGO that "gets shit done" you come to the table with big money and you don't act coy about spending it.  

The Media

It's an utter myth that the Washington press corps is somehow a check on the government.  It IS the government.  They office out of our buildings, eat lunch with us, marry us (or hop into our beds), go out drinking with us, and get damn near every piece of "news" they print from the mouth of one of their booze buddies.  Andrea Mitchell, for example, is the archetype of the Washington media insider.  She's married to one of the most powerful men in this town, goes to all the elite parties, can walk in any agency like an employee, and yet puts forward the facade of an objective journalist.  No way.  An inside the Beltway journalist is just as much a part of the government as a senior White House staffer.  They're not a check on the system at all, merely an extension of it.  

This was one of the more shocking aspects of Washington life that I became aware of.  In the Lone Star State - we didn't trust the media.  We didn't like them.  We didn't let them office out of our buildings.  We didn't eat out with them.  When they were around we kept our mouths shut.  The media was meant to be avoided, unless they were needed as a means of getting some kind of agenda item "out there."  Not so in Washington.  The media, here, is an integrated part of the government itself.  And the only requirement to being a successful member of the press corps is that you're willing to kiss the ring of whomever has power - regardless of which party is holding it.  


That's a "lite" summary of the lay of the land in Washington.  These are the players.  In subsequent diaries I'll be discussing how all these groups interact to get things done - or to avoid doing things.  We've already touched on the question of access as the route to power.  Next time we'll go into how that works, as I take you inside the cocktail party circuit and we look in on "the daily briefing."    

Originally posted to CrazyHorse on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 09:17 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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