« working to improve the national conversation | Main | welcome to Participedia »

October 14, 2010

Ward Just's Washington

I have been reading or re-reading fine scholarly books about the way citizens relate to their national government.* These books provide persuasive empirical evidence, but I don't think any is as perceptive as Ward Just in his Washington novels, such as Echo House, Jack Gance, and City of Fear.

A common theme is the shift from Washington as the seat of government to the modern city of dealmakers and negotiators. Ward Just (who was the Washington Post's lead reporter in Vietnam) certainly does not regard the old Washington as unproblematically benign. It was a city of power, and the powerful sometimes lacked wisdom and ethics. Yet their job was to govern. Their titles, their powers, and their paychecks were federal. They made big decisions that were public, subject to popular approval or rejection. For instance--and this is my example, not Just's--in a mere two years from 1963-4, Congress passed and the president signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (launching the War on Poverty and creating Head Start, Job Corps, and many other programs), the Food Stamp Act (institutionalizing food stamps as a permanent federal welfare program), the Federal Transit Act (providing federal aid for mass transportation), the Library Services and Construction Act (offering federal aid for libraries), the Community Mental Health Centers Act (de-institutionalizing many mental health patients), the Clean Air Act (the first federal environmental law allowing citizens to sue polluters), the Wilderness Act (protecting nine million acres of federal land), the Equal Pay Act (addressing wage discrimination by sex), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (ending de jure racial segregation in the United States), and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (rapidly escalating the Vietnam War).

Some of those bills were good. Some were very bad. But all were landmark statutes, widely publicized, driven by national political leaders and large constituencies, consistent with general philosophies.

That whole style of governance soon ended. In 1997-8, 70 percent of the issues Congress considered went nowhere at all, and The Washington Post decried “the barrenness of the legislative record” at the end of the session.

But that did not mean that the government stopped governing. Washington still faced innumerable choices about which activities and programs to fund, purchase, permit, require, measure, ban, and punish. Those decisions were no longer made in major bills, widely publicized, debated on the floor of Congress, and signed or vetoed by Presidents. Instead, the decisions were negotiated behind the scenes by people in and (mainly) outside the government. "Governance" now meant the regulations issued by administrative agencies, the determinations of administrative law judges, the outcomes of lawsuits against federal agencies, the appropriations bills, riders, and earmarks passed by congressional subcommittees, the policies adopted by federal contractors, and the memoranda of understanding (and even the unwritten agreements) that bound various "stakeholders."

It was a city, then of dealmaking instead of lawmaking, where the least important people might hold elected or appointed positions and the real power belonged to well connected negotiators. Always awash with money, it was now a city in which turning private money into power was legitimate, professional. Meanwhile, expectations faded that anything really important would happen as a result. No more War on Poverty, but plenty of targeted tax breaks and regulatory negotiations.

In Jack Gance, Ward Just's eponymous narrator recalls the end of the sixties:

*Theodore Lowi, The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States, second edition (New York: Norton, 1979) ; Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); and others.

October 14, 2010 11:25 AM | category: none



Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

Site Meter