Dysfunction in D.C.: A Tale from Inside the Beltway

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During the first week of my summer in Washington, D.C., I arranged to meet up with a friend who had recently been hired at a conservative-leaning think tank. I was interning for a national political party, and he was full of advice on what I should do during my ten weeks in D.C.

After catching up over dinner, my friend offered to give me a tour of his new office, which ended with a climb onto the building roof and a stunning view of the D.C. skyline.

From seven or eight stories up, I took-in the magnificent sights of the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the sun setting over the Lincoln Memorial. From the rooftop, I could also see crowds of people swarming the metro stops and long lines of snarled traffic stretching from either end of the National Mall.

I had been in D.C. for just a few days, and that view made me wonder: how do you make sense of such a big and complicated city? And how do you even begin to comprehend the immense power that has been entrusted to the relatively few people who live and work there?

The Folks Inside the Beltway
This past summer, I had the opportunity to intern in an office that was full of exceptionally dedicated and passionate people. Every day I was given meaningful work by self-declared “partisans” who broke all the political stereotypes that exist.
I also stayed with a very kind family inside the Beltway during my internship, and was introduced to countless of their friends in the D.C. area. The generosity that they showed to me, as a guest and visitor, was incredible.

This summer though was also the first time that I spent more than a passing weekend in D.C. As an outsider looking in for a couple of months, I was surprised and struck by several things that I experienced. And while I was originally hesitant to share my thoughts on D.C. with anyone, I realized that my observations were more informative than they were critical.

The dominant complaint that we hear coming-out of D.C. today is best summarized in a single word: dysfunction. Common refrains include “Washington is dysfunctional,” “Congress is dysfunctional,” and “our political process is dysfunctional.”

Drawing from my recent experiences this summer, I can identify two basic explanations for why this city seems to be so plagued by dysfunction. The catch: they both are patterns of collective behavior that are based in the lives of the people who work and live there.

The D.C. Work Culture
If you talk to enough people on the Washington political scene, you will quickly find that the D.C. workforce is defined by its transitory nature and a high rate of turnover among non-senior employees. Looking at U.S. Census data, the D.C. population is quite younger than the national average, and it is growing at a significantly faster rate.

By itself, a highly competitive work environment is certainly not a bad thing. Compounding this natural dynamic, though, is something known as the “two-year cycle.” Since most members of Congress stand for reelection every other November, there is always the potential for quick and alternating shifts in power in Washington.

But it doesn’t even take an election to send a boatload of highly qualified employees overboard. In congressional offices, government agencies, and elsewhere, workers operate on a rather short-term timetable. I honestly lost count of the number of times I was told by people this summer that “I just know I’m working here until the next election.”

A general lack of job security and collective memory is usually detrimental in the private sector, and it should be a major concern for anyone who seeks to understand the nature of Washington politics.

Case in point, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in a major primary upset halted several political initiatives, and his staffers were left in the lurch while a replacement was chosen.

Stemming from this high rate of turnover, many supervisors in D.C. are constantly seeking new workers. Job searches are largely a word-of-mouth business, and many openings are never publicly posted. Networking and connections really do matter, and the fluidity of the labor market creates a virtual fishbowl in which everybody has a past connection to somebody else.

This type of labor market has its inherent downsides. I saw this summer that when sudden decisions must be made, personal differences can play an outsized role in political conflict. Once connections are established, moreover, like-minded people are quick to rally together as strategic allies and block out certain messages. This sometimes leads to the inadvertent creation of “echo chambers” of ideas.

When the U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, handed down its decision in June in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, there were two distinct reactions among political pundits. One side argued that the decision was a setback for “women’s rights,” while the other argued that it was a victory for “religious liberty.” Neither of these responses, in retrospect, took into full consideration the many aspects of the legal situation, but together they drowned out those attempting to voice a more comprehensive understanding.

Finally, a summer in Washington showed me that the flow of information can be quite restricted here—policy and opinion leaders typically go to just a dozen or so sources for most of the information they need to form all their decisions. I can name the handful of media outlets where political operatives consume and disseminate their more partisan messages. These newspapers, reports, and subscriptions together carry a tremendous amount of influence, and they uniformly shape the dynamics of day-to-day work in D.C.

Politicians and Political Ambition
On a different track, studies show that Washington has reached an all-time low in popularity. According to the latest Gallup poll, just 29 percent of Americans today trust the Presidency as an institution. For Congress, that number is seven percent.
Much of this comes from the public’s tendency to blame corruption—criminal or moral—for the dysfunction that they see in Washington. Disgruntled critics often say that our elected officials head to D.C. as agents of hopeful change, only to completely forget why voters sent them there.

While some politicians certainly do succumb to the allure of money and special interests, I believe that political discord stems from something more subtle about our elected officials. In the 21st-century, our representatives can bring dysfunction into our federal government through the unintended consequences of their simple ambition.
Political ambition is of course nothing new. What is different, though, is the context in which it plays out in Washington today.

Based on conversations that I had this summer and numerous published studies, political partisanship is at an all-time high in Washington. There are fewer moderates in D.C. than ever before, and more extreme leaders in the halls of power.
Ambitious, rising-star politicians have recognized this fact. They see the level of polarization, and they understand that in the current environment that the fastest way to power is by adhering to their respective party’s standards of ideological purity.

The result: elected officials in D.C. who are unable to work across the aisle because they fear being portrayed as insufficiently “pure.” The fallout from this private ambition is quite public. Think of the sequesters, government shutdowns, and partisan bills that have been rammed through Congress without a conference committee.

If our elected officials can sense an opportunity for advancement while towing the party line, it appears that they will go to almost any length today to further their careers.

And who can blame them? It makes sense that our elected officials in Washington want to climb the ladders of power just as much as the people who work for them. Ambition becomes a problem, however, when our nation’s future depends on a basic level of political cooperation and bipartisanship in D.C.

After interning this summer on Capitol Hill, a prospective Woodrow Wilson School student in the Class of 2017 expressed that her confidence in federal government employees actually increased. “They were driven far more by a desire to improve the national welfare than by the power-hungry attitude that people so often associate with the political animals of Washington,” she wrote in an e-mail.

After seeing the political tactics employed by some politicians, however, she said that her faith in her elected representatives took a serious hit. She expressed her disapproval over the times that ranking officials killed well-crafted legislation in order to deprive one member of political victory. “Party leadership in the legislative branch has far more influence than most Americans realize,” she said.

While ambition is a healthy thing in most circumstances, we can also see it run amok under certain conditions. In a new era of mass media and rapid political response, political ambition is being harnessed in new ways in Washington, with significant consequences for our nation.

In short, ambition cannot counteract ambition if both sides refuse to interact. Instead, each side festers, and our federal government becomes less productive as a result.

Final Conclusions
I have never once wanted to disparage Washington or the people who live there. Moreover, this article was not written to discourage people from moving and working there. In fact, just the opposite is true. Washington needs more creative thinkers and doers, men and women like us, who can break the molds that currently exist there.

Washington’s work culture and the political ambition of its leaders are not the products of any one person, nor are they something that you can purposefully promote. They are unique frameworks for social interaction in D.C., and they affect the life of every person who lives and works inside the Beltway, for good and bad.

So, to all the politically-inclined members of the Class of 2018 (or older), saddle up and apply for that summer in D.C.—our capital needs you!

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