The Atlantic | March 2013
THE government shutdown last fall wasted billions of dollars, upset innumerable plans, and besmirched both political parties. But it did have one constructive effect. Surveying the wreckage, grown-ups in both parties realized that the politics of public confrontation is a lot better at closing the government than running it. So, to avoid a repeat, they decided to try something old. Something very old. In a healthy return to machine politics, they handed budget negotiations over to political hacks cutting deals behind closed doors.
Once upon a time, the budget process was reasonably regular. In fact, it was conducted under what was called regular order. The budget-committee chairmen would do some horse trading to build a consensus within each chamber, the House and Senate would then pass those budgets without too much ado, and the two chambers would work out their differences in a conference committee. Then the appropriations committees would do more or less the same thing, making sure to spread around enough pork-barrel goodies to get their friends paid off and the budget passed. The president and the congressional leaders would be involved throughout the process, every now and then calling a budget summit, but most of the real work would go on behind the scenes.
In the past few years, by contrast, regular order has been replaced by regular chaos. Public ultimatums supplanted private negotiations, games of chicken replaced mutual back-scratching, and bumptious Republican House members took to dictating terms to their putative leadership. Last fall, after one tantrum too many, Congress seemed exhausted. As part of a deal to reopen the government, it returned the task of setting the next fiscal year’s budget to the budget and appropriations committees, sending them off to a smoke-free smoke-filled room to cut a deal. The result, a trillion-dollar spending bill loaded with incentives for each side, sailed through Congress in January.
How often backroom deal making will work in today’s age of hyper-partisanship remains to be seen, but Congress’s recourse to it represents a welcome rediscovery of a home truth. Politics needs good leaders, but it needs good followers even more, and they don’t come cheap. Loyalty gets you only so far, and ideology is divisive. Political machines need to exist, and they need to work. No one understood this better than the street-smart political sage George Washington Plunkitt, who articulated the concept of honest graft.
Plunkitt was a factotum of New York’s renowned Tammany Hall political machine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among his accomplishments was holding four public offices at once, drawing salaries for three of them. It was his custom to opine on politics from the shoeshine stand at the county courthouse, where his reflections were taken down by a reporter named William L. Riordon and published in a 1905 classic called Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. His greatest insight was the distinction between honest and dishonest graft.
“There’s the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin’ their eyes wide open,” Plunkitt said. “The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin’ his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization’s interests, and the city’s interests all at the same time.” Dirty graft is parasitic, mere larceny, whereas honest graft helps knit together a patronage network that ensures leaders can lead and followers will follow. Reformers who failed to understand this crucial distinction, Plunkitt said, courted anarchy. “First,” he reasoned, “this great and glorious country was built up by political parties; second, parties can’t hold together if their workers don’t get the offices when they win; third, if the parties go to pieces, the government they built up must go to pieces, too; fourth, then there’ll be h--- to pay.”
Plunkitt’s warning, however colorfully expressed, was no mere wheeze. Writing just a few months ago in The National Interest, the political scientist Vivek S. Sharma, sounding like Plunkitt with a Ph.D., made an academic version of exactly the same point, noting that in many countries, patronage “is the grease that keeps the gears of the system running.” Well-intentioned Americans who try to stamp out patronage networks in places like Afghanistan and Iraq usually just make things worse, Sharma observed, because “building formal institutions can in no way substitute for the creation of incentive structures that govern actual lives.”
In other words, in most political systems, the right amount of corruption is greater than zero. Leaders need to be able to reward followers and punish turncoats and free agents. Sometimes that will look sleazy, undemocratic, or both, but it is often better than the alternatives.
For decades, America did a good job of equilibrating honest graft. We called it pork-barrel spending and earmarks, and we brought it aboveboard, so that politicians were openly lining their constituents’ pockets rather than secretly lining their own. We also gave party bosses the power to twist defiant arms. If a member of Congress defied the leadership on a key vote, he might see his campaign contributions dry up, or his committee assignments downgraded, or the party elders throwing their support behind someone else in the next election. Members did defy the leadership, of course. But they thought twice before they did.
Plunkitt would be dismayed to see that since his day, the gears of the party machines have been stripped, one by one. Instead of being chosen by party elders, candidates are now selected in primary elections or caucuses, which tend to be dominated by ideological extremists. Conservative Republicans are thus much more afraid of the Tea Party than of House Speaker John Boehner. Reformers, worried about corruption, also put tight limits on direct political contributions to candidates and parties. The result has been to divert money to unaccountable private groups, many of which clobber candidates who take tough votes to support party leaders. Meanwhile, rules requiring deliberations to be public have proved a mixed blessing, because it’s hard to negotiate in earnest while striking ideological postures for TV cameras.
In a final blow, Tea Partiers and other righteous types waged a successful jihad against earmarks, the appropriations made for senators’ and representatives’ pet projects. No longer could the speaker tell a recalcitrant House member, “If I don’t get your vote for the budget compromise, you can say goodbye to that new irrigation project in your district.” By the time Congress banned earmarks, they were transparent (publicly disclosed) and inexpensive (a rounding error in the federal budget). With them went probably the last remnant of honest graft. Lo and behold, Plunkitt’s prediction that “there’ll be h--- to pay” has come to pass.
I don’t disagree that the high-handed corruption of Tammany Hall was too much of a bad thing. (Tammany, efficiency-minded, centralized its bribe-collecting for convenient one-stop service.) We obviously shouldn’t go back to the Tammany ways, even if that were possible. Still, one can also have too little of a bad thing, and the overshoot against honest graft is an example. The next round of political reform should make party bosses and political machines stronger, not weaker. The candidate-selection process should be tweaked to reduce the sway of grass-roots activists and return power to party grandees. To bring special interests into the open, limits on direct political contributions to parties and candidates should be raised, if not eliminated altogether (something the Supreme Court may attend to later this year, when it decides McCutcheon v. FEC, a challenge to certain contribution limits). Congress should do more business through back channels, off camera. And, yes, the ban on earmarks should be revoked.
More important than such specific tinkering, though, is to relearn the timeless lesson that George Washington Plunkitt taught. Earnest campaigns to take the politics out of politics can make governing more difficult, with results that serve no one very well. The next time you see some new reform scheme touted in the name of stopping corruption, pause to recall the wisdom of another old-school pol, the late Representative Jimmy Burke, of Massachusetts: “The trouble with some people is that they think this place is on the level.”