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7 August 2013

Washington has fallen to the political undead – Westminster must not be next

Scattering nuggets of gossip on his way, Christopher Buckley contributes an eye-opening book review for the New York Times. His theme is Washington’s big money politics:

  • “Anyone who’s lived in Washington for any length of time, listening to the latest candidate for the nation’s highest office thump the lectern and proclaim he is going to change the way we do business in Washington . . . will yawn. We heard rather a lot about all that in 2008. So, has Washington changed? Or as Sarah Palin would put it, ‘How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya?’”

The answer to that is not very well, says Mark Leibovich, whose book This Town, gives Buckley plenty to get stuck into:

  • “President Obama’s first year in office was the best year ever for the special interests industry, which earned $3.47 billion lobbying the federal government…”

There always was a lot of money in US politics, but it’s now reaching a whole new level:

  • “‘Over the last dozen years,’ Leibovich writes, ‘corporate America (much of it Wall Street) has tripled the amount of money it has spent on lobbying and public affairs consulting in D.C.’ Alongside this money comes the tsunami of dollars from presidential campaigns. He reports that during the 2012 contest, the so-called super PACs and megadonors pumped ‘upwards of $2 billion . . . into the empty-calorie economy of two men destroying each other.’”

But then comes the most shocking statistic of the lot:

  • “There’s a phrase in journalism-speak called ‘burying the lede,’ which Leibovich appears to do by waiting until Page 330 to cite this arresting figure (previously reported by The Atlantic): in 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. ‘Now 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do.’ No one goes home anymore. Cincinnatus, call your office.”

Instead of going home, these so-called ‘formers’ hang around the corridors of power – an army of the political undead, representing vested interests not the public interest.

Of course, ex-politicians are as entitled as anyone else to make a living – especially those quitting politics before retirement age. Some – like our own esteemed editor – go on to higher and better things. But, the American situation, in which getting on for half of all legislators turn into lobbyists, is deeply problematic.  

The British situation is not nearly as bad – not least because most of our MPs have very little influence while in office and even less afterwards. However, the fashion for increasingly youthful ministers means that ex-ministers are getting younger too – something which goes all the way to the top. Take the example of Tony Blair – Prime Minister at 43, ex-Prime Minister at 54.

Perhaps we should be less interested in the lives that politicians had before they got elected and more interested in what they get up to afterwards. 


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