Politics

The Revolving Door

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There is realty only one industry of any consequence in Washington, DC. Whatever else that goes on spins in some orbit around the federal government. So when an incumbent President is turned out of office, the revolving door starts spinning too. Nobody leaves town, they just trade places.

It occurs at every level. Members of congressional and committee staffs who spent the last several years developing legislative programs and engaging in "oversight," as it's called, have now moved with the new administration into the agencies they previously oversaw to direct the programs they created. Former members of Congress exploit their knowledge and experience and contracts by representing industries and corporations and associations who have business with the government.

The clusters of law firms, public relations firms, consulting firms, unions, trade associations, special interest groups and research institutes are way stations on the way in or out of power, feeder lines to and from government. Two most important talents in Washington are those of biding time and knowing when to trade up.

 After his apprenticeship in Lyndon Johnson's White House, for example, Joe Califano teamed up with Edward Bennett Williams in the practice of Washington law. After the Nixon-Ford hiatus, he signed on with Garter at HEW. Similarly, the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Patricia Roberts Harris, served under LBJ as ambassador to Luxembourg, then joined Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver &, Kampelman, the law firm that also harbors Sargent Shriver, former Peace Corps director, former ambassador to France, former vice-presidential nominee. Sharing the Fried-Frank bullpen for a time with Shriver and Harris was a highly regarded rookie, Jill Wine Volner of Watergate Special Prosecutor fame. When Garter came along Volner traded up to Counsel for the US Army.

In Washington, you are what you door have done. Wealth is not incidental, but it is a secondary attribute. Power and influence are their own rewards anywhere, but in Washington they are valued to a rarified degree. Here the wealthy often seem to be the strivers. So Cabinet members willingly take a 90 percent pay cut for their period of public service, because living under a government salary ceiling is a temporary condition, part of putting the finishing touches on a reputation in a setting where reputations endure. Status is conferred by title and position, and titles, in turn, are perpetuated by protocol. Governor Harriman hasn't been governor, after all, since an era that pre-dates even Nelson Rockefeller.

In the Cabinet phase, wealth is a deferred consideration, but the rewards of patience in Washington can be fancy indeed. Thus former Cabinet members tend to be much like former members of Congress. Once they've been to Washington, they find it's easy to develop a taste for the place, to linger on, enjoying the afterglow of influence either on call for the future or collecting those deferred remunerations. Three short years ago, back before his very short stint as President Ford's Secretary of Transportation, William T, Coleman, Jr. was among the most prominent, best paid members of the Philadelphia legal establishment. Coleman will return to his old profession, at least part-time, but not to his old home town. He'll stay on in Washington, he has announced, as a senior partner in the Los Angeles-Washington-Paris law firm of O'Melvney & Meyers, Coleman, who is black, will also be helping shape-up the affirmative action profiles of several corporate boards, among them Pan American, Chase Manhattan and the American Can Company.

 

Throughout the winter and spring, there were two transition offices operating in Washington, one for the incoming administration and one for the outgoing. The commodity of exchange in both was jobs or positions. In the afterglow, it is not difficult to find ways to extend and reward the distinction confer red by previous position in Washington. Coleman will combine his legal and corporate duties with a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, where he intends to examine relationships between a President and his Cabinet. His old boss, Gerald Ford, has signed up with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank on the ascendancy. Other out-of-work Republicans have gone to Brookings.

Corporate directorships are a very common means of solace for the loss of power. This year Donald Rumsfeld goes from Defense to the board of Sears, Roebuck and Co., William Simon from Treasury to the board of Citicorp, George Bush from the CIA to First International Bankshares, Inc. In truest revolving door fashion, Carla Hills, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was elected a director of IBM to replace Patricia Harris, who left Fried, Frank and the IBM board to replace Hills at HUD.

Some local Democrats complain that the part of the revolving door that rotates back in hasn't worked as well as usual under Jimmy Carter. To be sure, he took more of his government from the standard feeder lines than he led most Americans to believe he might, but he also passed over a legion of time servers who awaited 1976 with attache cases filled with updated resumes. He went outside Washington's free agent draft, thereby passing over a generation of middle-aged Democrats, too young for the undersecretary spots in the Kennedy-Johnson years, but seasoned now, full partners in the law firms and at just the right spot in the aging process for one final trade up.

Carter also failed to observe one of the longest-standing unwritten rules of jobs in Washingtonthat defeated members of Congress from the President's party who need them got them. It is a rule that Gerald Ford learned well during his tenure in this city and one he honored when the opportunity arose. In 1974, the Republicans' bitter Watergate harvest, the GOP turned over more than 40 seats to the Democrats, "Nobody went without," one veteran observer of the Washington revolving door puts it. This year, under Carter, things are different. Only eight house Democrats were defeated in 1976. Not all of them want to stay and work in Washington, but some definitely do. And right now, none has a job with the government. One who wants a government job very badly says he is tired of not having his calls returned by "those 25 year olds at the White House." Those who do call back hear the ex-Congressman threaten to work just as hard against Carter next time as he did for him last time. His is not a compelling case. If Carter wants to open a side door just wide enough to let a few Georgians in, Washington will just have to adjust temporarily. These new ones will be exiting by way of the revolving door soon enough.

 This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine

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