Sunday, March 02, 2008

Washington, DC: Northern Charm, Southern Efficiency

We have a love-hate relationship with Washington, DC - we hate to love it.

How can one not love this town? The history? The Big Ideas? Its heroes? And villains?


But that certainly doesn't mean Washington isn't one hell of a screwed up place.

We've spent the last day skimming David Brinkley's Washington Goes To War, a history of Washington during Wold War Two.

It's fabulous. And as relevant a primer on how DC works today as how Washington worked in a time long past.

For example, Brinkley on "accountability" in government:

Nobody was responsible. It was simply the way government worked, in both war and peace, although in wartime it was worse. The single fact most clearly differentiating government employees from private employees was, always, that government agencies did not have to earn their money. Congress simply handed it over every year and almost always more than the year before, so it was there to be spent and it was unthinkable not to spend it. Nobody in government ever benefited in any way from saving money. Whatever was not spent had to be handed back to the Treasury, and if an agency had money left over at the end of one year, how could it ask Congress for more money the next year? If it had money left, Congress might even cut, not increase, its budget the next year, an event regarded as one step short of suicide. So agencies all hired people they did not need, people for whom they had no work, because the money was there, and it absolutely, positively had to be spent. War or peace, this basic principle of government never changed.
True. That.

So whatever is a good little Washington reformer to do?

Know the score going in. And plan accordingly.