The Shadow Capitol
Descending Into the Ninth Circle of Washington Hell
Thomas Frank/The New Republic, October 9, 2006
You know you're getting close to the spectacular white office building at 101 Constitution Avenue when you start seeing lobbyists buzzing around like bees near a hive. With a little practice, the lobbyists are easy to distinguish from lesser drones: They are the ones who look like caricatures of prosperous men, dressed in a way that is no doubt meant to suggest "affluent businessman" but in which no proper businessman in Chicago or Kansas City would ever, in fact, dress himself. In most of the United States, male office-wear tends toward the drab; the lobbyist, by contrast, fancies himself Beau Brummell. He appears to choose each element of his ensemble for its conspicuous priciness, but to give no thought to the whole. You can spot him in the field by his perfectly fitted thousand-dollar suits, usually in blue; his strangely dainty shoes; his shirts, which are often the kind that come in pink or blue with white collars and cuffs, the latter of which display cufflinks of the large and shiny variety; his vivid, shimmering ties, these days preferably in orange or lavender; his perfect haircut; the tiny flag attesting to his perfect patriotism on his perfect lapel; his perfect tan.
One of the most arresting sights in Washington, D.C., is when you notice one of these fussily dressed and pleasant-smelling creatures out of their element--say, dragging their Tumi luggage down a broken sidewalk near the bus station in the 100-degree heat. But, here at 101 Con, they are right at home. They come striding into the Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant and the air-conditioning is blasting and their teeth are exactly right and their ties jut gamely from their collars. The gang's all here, a bunch of real straight shooters, and they extend their hands to the committee chairman, and all the handsome fellows share a laugh together as they take their seats among scurrying waiters and huge vases of cut flowers.
You can offshore nearly any kind of job these days--ship your factory to Mexico and send your back office to India--but your lobbyists have to stay in Washington. The rest of the hard, old, face-to-face world may dissolve, but lobbying remains stubbornly rooted in the necessities of physical proximity to power and, of course, to tasty eats. At 101 Constitution, both of these can be found in fantastic abundance, and this has made the building a landmark for our political times, as the Watergate was for the 1970s and the "little green house" (where officials sold government favors in the Harding days) was for the 1920s. 101 Con is K Street in a box, a private-sector Pentagon where ten stories of lobbyists plot their next thrust on behalf of the life-insurance industry, the mining industry, or the retail hardware industry.
Form follows function, as they say, and 101 Con is admirably suited to the task of paid persuasion. From its very design, it's apparent that this building was intended to reel in earmarks the way a steel mill makes steel or a grain elevator stores wheat. To begin with, 101 Con is the closest commercial property to the Capitol building, literally just across a traffic island from the Capitol grounds. This means "members," as the men and women of Congress are called, can scoot over and back in a matter of minutes. The building's upper stories have an astonishing view of the Capitol dome, a quality exploited by the prominent turret that juts toward Constitution Avenue. This protuberance is topped by a rooftop terrace, where fund-raising events can be held against the striking panorama (rent starts at $10,000 a night, I was told); smaller balconies on the lower floors permit regular tenants to hold their own parties with the same backdrop. The tangible value of this view--namely, that it impresses clients--is often mentioned in news stories. The intangible value, I imagine, is that it also allows the lobbyists, like captains of industry in old advertisements, to look out grandly over the assembly line where their product is manufactured.
The building's ground floor houses the very large and very luxurious Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant, world-famous dealers in "artisan meats" and fine wines. This latter being one of the baseline currencies of the influence trade, the bottles are stored in an ostentatious glass "wine cube" perched on a platform over an indoor pond, like a Philip Johnson building in captivity. In theory, I suppose, having the wine room elevated and transparent in this way means that a dedicated, score-keeping fan of lobbying, if such a thing exists, could actually determine which particular vintage was being uncorked to advance which particular political cause.
Put the wine, the view, the steaks, and the location together with luxury furnishings and exceptional air-conditioning and you can fairly count on the place to swarm with Bush Pioneer- and Ranger-level fund-raisers. Even the elevators have been designed with lobbying in mind: "Since many of these tenants make regular trips to lobby their powerful neighbors across the street," their manufacturer boasts, "we're proud to think of the 15 custom elevators that we fabricated for the building as the first stage in the journey toward the creation of new laws." All that's missing, really, is a bullet train to the golf course.
The architects have done their job well. 101 Con is a "trophy-class" building with rents to prove it. The building hosts fund-raisers or receptions of one kind or another virtually all the time when Congress is in session; according to Roll Call, PAC fund-raisers make up fully 25 percent of Charlie Palmer Steak's business. I was told by one restaurant employee that business had suffered since the Jack Abramoff affair, with its lurid tales of sushi-crazed legislators selling themselves for finger-sized bites of raw fish. But, according to the most recent study conducted by Bloomberg, the restaurant ranked second in popularity among members to the Caucus Room--a nearby establishment where they've cut out the middleman: The restaurant itself is owned by lobbyists.
As I write this, I am looking at a $20 Davidoff cigar of the kind that a waiter at Charlie Palmer Steak insisted was Tom DeLay's favorite. I have propped it up on my desk as a kind of souvenir, a reminder of how this city works. The waiter had been describing for me a dinner party attended by the former majority leader the night before, and he had concluded with the following explanation of the restaurant's (and the building's, and DeLay's) success: "Access is power and power is money." Were tobacco advertising still permitted on television, it would make a perfect jingle for Davidoff cigars. Translated into Latin, it might be the new national motto. In homage to this waiter's wisdom, let us begin our survey here, at Charlie Palmer.
Visitors to Washington who want to see democracy in action traditionally waste their time at the viewing galleries of the Capitol building, where--if they are lucky--they might see one or two legislators mumbling mechanically for the c-span cameras. It is, as everyone knows, a big letdown--a disillusionment that is cited whenever smart young people relate how they got to be so wise to the world.
My advice to those visitors: Walk across the street to Charlie Palmer Steak. This is the place for political spectatorship in the age of Abramoff, where you can see the questions before the nation actually being resolved--and can do it over a meal, too, saving yourself a trip to Applebee's later. Start with the miniature lobster corndogs, $9, a nod to the deep-fried treats of your red-state youth (but made with lobster, get it?), and then slyly bribe yourself with a plateful of the domestic Kobe sirloin, $68. Wash the whole thing down with a half-dozen Manhattans--you will need them. Look around you while you eat: This is not the dim, windowless steakhouse of your weekend debauches in Wichita. It is light; it is open; its polished limestone walls are accented with Wedgwood blue; a curtain of glass showcases the prominent, prosperous diners to the sweating world outside. See that pond burbling in the middle of the restaurant? And the heavy steel ingot they use to prop up your menu? It's because of classy touches like these that your congressman is never moving back to your home state, regardless of what he says about "sharing your values."
Speaking of that congressman of yours: If you're lucky, you will see him here. Indeed, for the price of that steak you can watch him and his fellow members make decisions that will affect you for the rest of your life. And, when they do, you will see that they're making these decisions in close consultation with non-members--people just like you, in fact, only with better hair, better clothes, better manners, and a better job working for far richer and more important companies than yours.
I showed up at Charlie Palmer one evening in July, only minutes, I was assured, after Tom DeLay had departed. I took up a post with an advantageous view, fortified myself with a few drinks, and watched the proceedings unfold. A parade of well-dressed VIPs poured by--top SEC personnel, important aides, U.S. senators, numerous representatives, former White House officials, and lobbyists of every stripe--all of them dressed perfectly and wearing expressions of unflappable satisfaction, if not outright hilarity. A contented-looking fellow in a vivid yellow tie was whispered to be the aide who made some congressman a populist. A man squeezed through the jolly crowd wearing a weathered face and a shirt embroidered with the words missouri corn growers association. A party rumored to be a Big Pharma affair roared on in a private dining room just behind the bar.
Who are these special beings who pay for--and, in some cases, write--the laws that govern our lives?
To meet them, you must persuade the lobby guards at 101 Con to let you into the building proper. (No easy feat: There are no public viewing galleries for the work that's done in these offices.) Take an elevator to one of the building's upper stories. As you stroll around, you will notice that the offices are often decorated with those handshake pictures that are so popular in Washingon--photographic proof of a given lobbyist's intimacy with politicians and a much more useful tool in establishing one's professional bona fides than any college degree. You will also see model airplanes, model motorcycles, and other carefully arranged bric-a-brac that are normally reminders of leisure-time fun in the outside world. Here, they are strictly business: reminders of the industry for which legislative favors are sought. And, always, looming magnificently in the background, is That View: the bleached dome of the U.S. Capitol.
Think of the elevator ride upward as Dante's descent into hell, but in reverse and with ten stops instead of nine. Let's begin our tour at the midway point, the fifth floor, home to (among others) the National Mining Association (NMA), an industry group that is mainly concerned with promoting coal and that furthers its agenda with large campaign contributions, mainly to Republicans. In 2004, this outfit sponsored a grassroots effort called "Mine the Vote," in which mine-owners introduced mine-workers to their favored candidates. (I know of no organization at 101 Con, or anywhere in this town, dedicated to doing the reverse.) Very plutocratic of them, but also very effective: The program is said to have helped Bush prevail in the once reliably Democratic state of West Virginia.
The National Mining Association spends millions on lobbying every year. In fact, it does so much lobbying that it must hire other lobbying firms to augment its own efforts. Back in the 1990s, one of those outside shops was National Environmental Strategies, headed by J. Steven Griles, a man whose best-known environmental strategy had been to permit oil-drilling off the coast of California when he was a government official in the 1980s. With the advent of the Bush administration in 2001, Griles took a trip back through that revolving door you've heard about and accepted a job as the number-two at the Department of the Interior, making policy on the very matters that had concerned him as a lobbyist. Then, in 2005, Griles headed for the exit yet again, this time after being accused of doing favors for Abramoff's Indian casino clients, whose operations are also regulated by the Interior Department. Today, he's back in the saddle, lobbying for the energy industry--for a time from an office that was also on the fifth floor of 101 Con.
Until last year, the head of the NMA's in-house lobbying operations was one John Shelk, an expert on energy issues who got his start, like many lobbyists, working for the congressional body charged with overseeing those issues--in this case, the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He later proceeded to lobby his old colleagues on behalf of none other than Enron, which was then spending tens of millions "spreading the gospel of deregulation," as a Shelk profile in a trade magazine put it. When pushing coal for the National Mining Association, of course, Shelk claimed to have only the consumer in mind, but the religion ultimately is unchanged from the Enron days: "The point is for people who believe in markets to stick together," he says. The trade magazine also noted that Shelk's office features that trump card of Lobbyland--a picture of the lobbyist shaking hands with Karl Rove.
On your way back to the elevator, try to find the office of high-tech conglomerate Honeywell. Here, the attraction is not so much the lobbyists themselves, but rather the high-tech lobbying machine that the company has built, a multi-room audio-visual exhibit detailing all the ways the company is involved in your life, from warheads to cars to surveillance equipment. There is even a flight simulator--reportedly popular with members who stop by to get a little aeronautical exercise.
Now it's on to floor six, where you can visit the offices of Van Scoyoc Associates. The first time I heard about Van Scoyoc was when a lobbyist friend insisted to me, in hushed tones, that the people at this prestigious and respected D.C. firm were specialists in earmarks--those little pet pork projects that individual legislators like to insert into bills quietly and at the last minute. I didn't believe him at first. After all, these days earmarks are the very symbol of misgovernment and corruption. They are the $200 million "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska; the bribery price list that Duke Cunningham drew up for the convenience of his regular customers; the numerous favors Montana Senator Conrad Burns allegedly did for Abramoff. I know in the abstract that lobbyists are involved in the process, of course. Earmarks are the juiciest quid that House members have to sell; the lobbyists are there to furnish the quo, in the form of wine, steak, cigars, golf weekends, campaign contributions, and airline tickets to romantic places. But, I wondered, could it really be so open, so unconcealed? A firm that specializes in earmarks? That's like putting a sign on your door that says Dealers in Graft and Boodle.
So naïve am I. According to a recent story in The New York Times, the buying and selling of earmarks is now so routine that even municipalities are getting into the act, hiring lobbyists to induce their own elected officials in Washington to do their jobs. According to a recent article in CQ Weekly, lobbying accounts in the field of "Budget and appropriations" (i.e., earmarks) have tripled since 1998; it is, today, the single largest category for lobbying activity. The number-one firm in the field: Van Scoyoc Associates, of 101 Constitution Avenue.
The firm employs a staff of 90 and claims to boast a client list of over 300, including (according to the firm's publicity materials) 50 universities and 20 of the nation's largest corporations. Van Scoyoc seems particularly proud of its success in the rapidly growing field of academic earmarks, whereby some research project or institute is funded directly by Congress instead of through the usual process--you know, where scholars or bureaucrats look the proposal over and decide whether it's a good idea or not. One example of how this works, according to data provided by Public Citizen: From 1998 to 2006, the University of Alabama paid Van Scoyoc $1.5 million; over that same period, the various officers of the firm contributed at least $123,500 to Alabama Senator Richard Shelby (two of the firm's vice presidents are, in fact, former staffers of Shelby's); and, during those years, Shelby earmarked some $150 million for the University of Alabama.
Every element of this chain is, of course, formally unconnected to every other--innocent and wholesome as a newborn babe. But imagine, for a moment, that this is exactly the racket it appears to be. That is to say, what if the company's officers were really able to charge clients $1.5 million for making contributions of $123,500 (a twelvefold increase) and if the University of Alabama turned $1.5 million in lobbying fees into $150 million in earmarks (a hundredfold increase) and if Shelby himself pocketed $123,500 in campaign donations just for greasing the skids when the call came from 101 Con.
Surely you know the liturgy of conservative Washington by now: Government doesn't work, the private sector is so much more efficient, and so on. Still, I can't help but marvel at how much everyone would have saved had we just cut out the middleman and had Shelby do his job.
Up another floor, on seven, we find the offices of the Federal Policy Group, the lobbying arm of Clark Consulting. Though the tenants of 101 Con are people with great power over the public welfare, they are generally not public figures. A welcome exception to this rule, however, is the boss-man of the Federal Policy Group, Ken Kies. Unlike most other lobbyists, Kies does interviews, writes articles, and even appears on television. This is because he is no mere chortling backslapper in an orange tie, but rather a bona fide expert on a difficult subject. Kies is one of the greatest living authorities on the U.S. tax code; over the last 20 years, Republicans have come to him whenever they have wanted to rewrite tax law.
It turns out, however, that letting a lobbyist have a say in writing the tax code is not a particularly good idea. Jeffrey Birnbaum tells the story of a 1989 incident in which Kies, who had left the staff of the House Ways and Means Committee a short time before, came back to his old friends at the Committee seeking a tax exemption for his new friend--an iron-ore outfit that had hired him as a lobbyist. Kies's pals on the Hill were not only happy to oblige, they actually let Kies come up with a tax increase on somebody else (in this case, cell phone users) to replace the revenue lost in the exemption that they granted Kies's client.
With the Republican conquest of Congress in 1994, Kies went back on the public payroll, now as chief of staff for the Joint Committee on Taxation, a position of such authority and prestige that articles from the time reported him to be more popular on the corporate lecture circuit than his nominal bosses on the committee. In 1998, Kies was back through the revolving door for good, once again dreaming up justifications for the very particular changes to the tax code that his very wealthy clients wanted. "I've never seen a guy who's got an influence over the tax chairman like he has," a tax official told The New Republic in 2000. His employer's website actually lists the results: Regulations reversed, laws averted, rulings withdrawn, corporate tax deductions retroactively allowed--more lawmaking activity than Congress itself, almost. And it is, all of it, for sale.
Upward once again to floor eight. Until recently, this was the home of the American Security Council (ASC), where the visitor could wade deep into the murky waters of the extreme right, better known today as the responsible mainstream. The ASC was founded in 1955 by a consortium of old-school Chicago tycoons who wanted what a 1971 account calls "a blacklist service," or, more accurately, a master list of all the suspected subversives, radicals, and leftists in the land. To this end, the ASC reportedly tried to get its hands on the files of ole Joe McCarthy.
Wherever there's a well-funded red-hunting scheme afoot, though, things seem to get out of hand quickly. In its early days, the ASC was run by former FBI agents, but, before long, the group had connections with the John Birch Society and was giving a helping hand to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Its letterhead was ennobled with an impressive string of retired generals and admirals, one of whom was lampooned in Dr. Strangelove. Its focus evolved as well--from identifying unacceptably liberal organizations and individuals to advocating a more aggressive stance toward communist regimes abroad, particularly the one in China. The group moved to Washington, where its list of corporate members expanded from a few medieval-minded Chicagoans to encompass the entire range of military contractors. Between its generals, its arms manufacturers, and its strategic thinkers, the ASC soon became, as a liberal author put it, "the embodiment of the military-industrial complex." (This was not an unwelcome characterization, by the way. For his 1983 book, Peddlers of Crisis, Jerry W. Sanders asked an ASC official if he disliked the phrase. "His reply was emphatic. 'Hell no--if our military and industry can't get together how are we going to defend our country?' He added, 'The military-industrial complex is a very healthy thing despite the fact it's downgraded in the press.'")
And, of course, the ASC commenced lobbying. The international scene has changed dramatically over the years, but the ASC's demand on Congress has remained obsessively consistent: Spend more on the military. It doesn't matter how much we are already spending, and it doesn't matter if Russian communism is gone or if the Sandinistas are no longer in power or if Red China is now the number-one manufacturer of, well, everything: We must spend more--on aircraft carriers, on nuclear earth-penetrator weapons, on missile defense. To back all this up, in 1970 the ASC developed what seems to have been the very first legislative rating system, in which senators and representatives are graded by how they vote on the various issues of interest to an organization. It is a common technique today, used by everyone from the Christian Coalition to the aclu, but at the time, it was something of a novelty--bitterly resented by the liberals that it targeted.
The ASC's heyday came in the '70s, when it assembled a mighty host of organizations into a "Coalition for Peace Through Strength" to decry Soviet military superiority and oppose the salt treaties. Then, under the presidency of coalition member Ronald Reagan, the ASC's every defense-spending dream was fulfilled. Today, though, the ASC is an aging and feeble bird in the hawks' aerie, overshadowed by such virile new "peddlers of crisis" as the Project for the New American Century and the Center for Security Policy.
Still, the organization soldiers on, publishing its voting index and shrieking eternally for more. To all appearances, it is a benign organization now--its extremist past locked away for good.
But a curious incident a few years ago shows how persistent the old patterns can be. It seems that one of the ASC's confusing subsidiary groups had Jack Abramoff on its board. This was not strange by itself--Abramoff was a right-winger from way back who had been involved in an ASC-organized campaign when he was head of the College Republicans in the early '80s. But now the roles were reversed. It was Abramoff, not the aging red-hunters, who was doing the dirty work for the corporate crowd--in this case, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, where a handful of garment manufacturers needed a little bit of lobbying help to keep their, shall we say, curious labor arrangements legal. And it was the ASC that furnished the cover for an Abramoff-organized campaign to bring lawmakers to the islands in order to win their goodwill. Under the guise of the subsidiary group, the ASC took two Democratic congressmen on a trip to the islands, the expenses for which were ultimately paid by Abramoff.
It is a tragic trajectory by the standards of Washington, this tale of one group's decline from roaring warrior to lobbyist plaything--from defending the beloved homeland to shilling for a low-wage hell. But it is also a most precise metaphor for this city we live in and for what its masters have wreaked on the country they rule.
Take the elevator on up to nine. (We're almost there!) Here, you may note the conference rooms where public policy is made by the private sector, the leather upholstery and star-spangled light fixtures and domed ceilings made of polished wood. Walk to the large, empty triangular room with the balcony beyond and the by-now-tiresome view. You are standing near the site of one of the most storied events in lobbying history: Tom DeLay's Thanksgiving fund-raiser of November 17, 2005. Those were dark days for "the Hammer": He had been indicted in Texas and had resigned his position as majority leader; several of his former associates had been implicated in the Abramoff scandal, and guilty pleas were just around the corner. But Tom DeLay would not be intimidated. He stared the world down with those unblinking exterminator's eyes and conspicuously scheduled one last, great blowout--the biggest fund-raiser of the year.
And it was a success, too. A lobbyist friend explained the rationale to me: DeLay just might survive this episode, the participants thought, and, if he does, I want to be his friend. So the call went forth, and the private sector arose as one, a mighty host shoveling the money in a colossal show of "moral support," as one of them described it to The Washington Post. The National Association of Manufacturers attended, as did the Refiners and the Truckers. The roll call of industry went on: Oil! Coal! Gas! Electricity! Petrochemical! Wall Street! On into the night, on that delirious ninth floor of 101 Con, they did homage to their friend and paid their dues for the years of good government he had given them.
DeLay's celebration of his own shamelessness was hardly the only commemoration of GOP Washington held at 101 Con last fall. Hop back in the elevator and make your way up to the fabulous rooftop terrace. (Along the way, you'll pass the tenth-floor office of Goldman Sachs, whose chief was recently promoted to Treasury secretary.) Here, you will find yourself at the site where, in September 2005, The Weekly Standard feted its first decade of publication.
Like DeLay, and Republican D.C. generally, The Weekly Standard got its start with the Gingrich revolution. (I still have a copy of Number 1, with a warrior Newt on the cover.) Ten years later, there was no better vantage point than the roof of 101 Con for the Standard gang to look out over the conquered Capitol and savor all that they had wrought. Owner Rupert Murdoch himself was on hand to acknowledge the adulation of his courtiers (from close up, his skin and hair appear synthetic, I am told), while Senators Bill Frist and John McCain and former Attorney General John Ashcroft paid homage, and Senator Joe Lieberman was spotted scurrying furtively away, as if stalked by some future Republican self. The gala was decorated with immense blow-ups of Weekly Standard covers over the years, many of them proclaiming the imminent threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and the conversation swirled around Hurricane Katrina, which had inundated New Orleans two weeks previously. The general consensus among partygoers, according to one of them, was that the president would not be hurt as long as the body count stayed in the low four figures. Lobster was served. Katherine Harris appeared oiled.
Which brings us to the strangest twist in the story of 101 Constitution: This showplace of corporate power is owned by a labor union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC). Before it was built, the site was occupied by a standard-issue union headquarters, a "marble mausoleum," as one Carpenters official described it to me. The Carpenters are still here, of course: They maintain offices on the tenth floor and claim to dedicate the considerable revenue generated by the building to their organizing efforts. Though there are few overt signs of their presence, if you look closely there are clues indicating the building's provenance. From the parquet marble floor in the lobby to the finely polished elevator doors to the exotic wood paneling, the visitor is constantly aware of the building's slightly excessive craftsmanship. (Everything here was designed, the union's magazine says, "to go beyond just good enough.") If a visitor happens to forget who is responsible for all this quality, he is reminded by an enormous mural in the lobby that depicts a hard-hatted carpenter, naked from the waist up, taking a break from his construction job to gaze at the Capitol dome. As presumably the sole bit of monumental social realism executed in the nation's capital during the Bush years, by the way, this mural ought to put the building on the tourist's map all by itself.
If you're a liberal optimist, you might see 101 Con as an ingenious detournement of Washington's hyper-capitalist culture, its rent helping to strengthen the ranks of the labor movement, the very thing the hyper-capitalist culture dreads most. Buy the senator another slab of artisan meat, Mr. Business Lobbyist! Sip your fizzy Italian water and go at your BlackBerry with both thumbs! Surely the joke is on you.
Only it isn't, really. While I myself find it gratifying to see corporate types obliged to pay rent to a labor union, the UBC isn't exactly the adversarial organization that one might hope. For one thing, it has been engaged for ten years now in a centralization scheme that involves stripping power from its local unions--and, in theory, from its rank-and-file members--and concentrating that power in regional councils. The union's president, Douglas McCarron, is also reportedly fond of corporate-style rhetoric, exhorting his membership to consider what their (imaginary) stockholders would think, according to a Canadian carpenters' newsletter, and describing the central union's income as "profit"--turns of phrase that sound harmless enough to outsiders but that rub some union types the wrong way.
Surely you have guessed what comes next: that, of all the labor leaders in the United States, it is this particular labor leader who has earned the friendship of George W. Bush, the most anti-labor president since ... maybe since Karl Rove's hero, William McKinley. McCarron has hosted Bush at the union's Labor Day picnics; Bush has hosted McCarron on Air Force One; McCarron was the only labor leader to speak at Bush's economic summit in 2002; that same year, Bush spoke at the UBC's political conference, where he congratulated the union for--of course--opening its new building at 101 Constitution. The payoff for Bush: In the 2004 election, which many unionists perceived as the most important in their lifetimes, the Carpenters proudly and with great fanfare endorsed nobody.
In Bush's salute to 101 Con, he claimed to find inspiration in the attendance of both Senator Ted Kennedy and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao at the building's dedication. The implied bipartisanship, the president said, was "a good sign as to how ... Washington ought to deal with problems." Democrats and Republicans, labor and big business--all of them coming together under one roof in Bush's Washington.
But on whose terms? Who gets to party on that roof?
The architecture of 101 Constitution again supplies the answer. Whenever I have wandered its halls, I have noticed a pattern of segregation by class. The lobbyists eat at Charlie Palmer, with its ranks of servile waiters; for everyone else, there is the "Capitol Cafe" on the exact opposite side of the building, a nearly windowless deli where the minimalism (its walls are painted cinderblock) comes from cheapness, not a taste for subtlety. The building is also, bizarrely, home to a Washington Gas payment center in addition to the lobbyists' offices, which ensures that poor and sometimes desperate District residents can be found straying into the wrong part of the building's lobby. In the elevator, I once commented to a woman that the building must be a nice place to work. "It's nice if you've got one of those offices facing the Capitol," she shot back. "Not so nice for the rest of us."
What "the rest of us" look over, ironically, is the brutal concrete shoebox of the Frances Perkins Building, in whose bowels toil the employees of the most disrespected federal department of them all, the Department of Labor, where the administration's philosophy of slam that sucker into reverse has achieved its greatest results--the elevation of hilariously unqualified people to positions of great authority; the shift of emphasis from protecting workers to policing them. The two buildings are not just neighbors on Constitution Avenue; they are opposites, physical representations of two different visions of government. One worldview sinks and the other rises, clad in glowing white limestone and ringing with the happy hubbub of commercialized politics.
After visiting 101 Con one day, I head over to the Labor Department, where I notice actual workers silently replacing the pavers in the terrace. What kind of workers, I wonder, does the Department of Labor hire when it needs work done on its own building? The first worker I approach can't say; he doesn't speak much English. The foreman, though, is happy to answer the question: they are nonunion, he says.
Maybe they could use a lobbyist.
Thomas Frank is the author of What's the Matter With Kansas? He is currently working on a book about conservative governance.