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Pennsylvania Avenue
Profiles in Backroom Power
By John Harwood and Gerald F. Seib
Random House
HC, 272 pgs. US$26
ISBN: 1-4000-6554-2

How the wheels are really greased

By Steven Martinovich
web posted June 23, 2008

Pennsylvania Avenue"Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made," Otto von Bismarck is to have said, though likely apocryphally. As powerful as the Imperial Chancellor of the German Empire was, even he learned that lesson when he was forced to enact social welfare legislation designed mostly to protect his flanks against growing opposition – laws that the arch-conservative likely wouldn't have even considered had socialist candidates not made inroads in the Reichstag. If the well-ordered 19th century German state can be considered a quiet neighbourhood deli, the modern American Republic is a slaughterhouse of noble ideas.

Several of those American sausage makers are profiled in Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power, a collection of brief profiles penned by New York Times political writer John Harwood and The Wall Street Journal assistant managing editor Gerald Seib. While some are likely known to the general public, such as former Deputy Chief of Staff in the Bush administration Karl Rove or Rep. Charlie Rangel, most of the others are outside of government, working as lobbyists, fundraisers, consultants and rainmakers. Like an army they march on Washington, D.C. and attempt to influence your political representatives on a variety of issues, raise money or both.

The role of money on Capitol Hill is represented by profiles of people like David Rubenstein, a founder of Carlyle Group and billionaire because of it. By locating the private equity investment firm in Washington, D.C., Rubenstein has made the world of big money more accessible to lawmakers. On other side of the fence, Harwood and Seib argue that much of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's meteoric rise can be traced to her incredible ability to raise money for herself and the Democratic Party, leading her career to a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Pennsylvania Avenue spends some of its time examining the top lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Ken Duberstein, former Chief of Staff for Ronald Reagan, is described as a "fixer" who is more interested in finding solutions then advocating for specific pieces of legislation. Billy Tauzin, who served as a representative on both sides of the aisle, is a "charming, gregarious Louisianan" that represents the pharmaceutical industry and fighting to protect the industry's interests against a Democrat-controlled Congress.

Elsewhere Harwood and Seib also examine grassroots organizers, the White House staffer who is among the most powerful un-elected government worker in Washington, D.C. and activists on both sides of the Wal-Mart issue. The book documents a fairly varied group of individuals, which at its finer moments illustrates how modern Washington, D.C. works – for better and worse.

As has been hinted at in this review, the authors work fairly hard to avoid bias in this book. In fact, Pennsylvania Avenue is peppered with references to the glory days of Capitol Hill, where civility reigned and everybody knew each other's name. They, and most of their subjects, bemoan the shrillness and anger of today's political scene and the book is practically a manifesto for the political center. A reader can be forgiven they occasionally wished Harwood and Seib to have taken a stand or gotten angry instead of taken a leisurely stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue to visit with its denizens.

As informative as Pennsylvania Avenue can be, it does have a few notable flaws. Harwood and Seib never seem to actually question the motivations of those that they profile. Indeed, other than a few so-called coalition builders, the uncommon and unflattering thread that unites many of the backroom players is a quest for power and money. They seem to accept, even when railing against it, the atmosphere of modern day Washington, D.C. Though the praise is faint, it doesn't come across as entirely damning when one person is described as "among the best of Washington's twenty-first century political operatives, skilled in communications rather than policy substance, campaign combat rather than governance."

Of course, for all of the author's assertions of how chummy Congress used to be -- those likely never to be repeated days when congressmen and senators stayed in Washington, D.C., rooming, eating and drinking together -- lobbyists and political operatives still prowled the halls of power in those halcyon days playing their games. There may be more of them today and the amount of money sloshing in the trough dwarfs anything from even a few years ago, but if anything, Pennsylvania Avenue proves the more things change, the more they stay the same. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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