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DC Confidential

Inside the Five Tricks of Washington

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 248 pages
ISBN: 9781594039119
AVAILABLE: 3/7/2017


DC Confidential
Inside the Five Tricks of Washington

You think you know why our government in Washington is broken, but you really don’t. You think it’s broken because politicians curry favor with special interests and activists of the left or the right. There’s something to that and it helps explain why these politicians can’t find common ground, but it misses the root cause. A half century ago, elected officials in Congress and the White House figured out a new system for enacting laws and spending programs—one that lets them take the credit for promising good news while avoiding the blame for producing bad results. With five key tricks, politicians of both parties now avoid accounting to us for what the government actually does to us.

While most people understand that these politicians seem to pull rabbits out of hats, hardly anyone sees the sleight of hand by which they get away with their tricks. Otherwise, their tricks wouldn’t work. DC Confidential exposes the sleights of hand. Once they are brought to light, we can stop the tricks, fix our broken government, and make Washington work for us once again.

This book explains the necessary reform and lays out an action plan to put it in place. Stopping the tricks would be a constructive, inclusive response to the anger that Americans from across the political spectrum feel toward what should be our government.


About the Author

David Schoenbrod was a leader of the Natural Resources Defense Council during the 1970s, heading campaigns to get lead out of gasoline, protect the environment of Puerto Rico, and protect New Yorkers from automotive air pollution. Now he is Trustee Professor at New York Law School and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Excerpt

Politicians began using the Five Tricks in the later 1960s, an era in which our federal government seemed capable of working wonders.

It had gotten the country through the Great Depression, won World War II, invented the atomic bomb, built the interstate highway system, came to preside over the world’s richest economy, and enacted meaningful civil rights legislation. In 1969, it even put humans on the moon. The government had achieved all this without needing the Five Tricks.

The successes of the government understandably led voters to demand more from it, and these demands understandably led politicians to want to please voters. So Congress and presidents (rightly in my opinion) addressed additional challenges such as pollution and haphazard health care for the poor and elderly, but (tragically in my opinion) began using tricks in writing the statutes.

The trickery, too, is understandable. Voters did not want to feel the burdens needed to produce the results they demanded from the government. Again wanting to please voters, politicians came to embrace theories, often sincerely, that enabled them to believe that they could deliver the benefits without commensurate burdens, and built such theories into statutes. As I will show, however, the theories usually failed to deliver the benefits without burdens, but promising something for nothing, or very little, had become the course of least resistance. The Five Tricks had begun.

The tricks differ from the spin and deceits with which politicians have always tried to put their actions in the most favorable light. The Five Tricks allow them to act in new ways that shift the blame for unpopular consequences to others.

I am not arguing that deficit spending, debt guarantees, federal mandates, or regulation are always bad. Far from it. And I understand that war is sometimes necessary.

I am arguing that to make government work for us, we need a Congress whose members are responsible for the consequences their decisions impose on us. Such responsibility would give them a powerful personal incentive to produce consequences that we favor. That is why the Constitution sought to put an accountable Congress at the heart of our government. What the Five Tricks do, however, is to short-circuit legislators’ personal responsibility for the consequences and, as a result, they give them a strong personal incentive to produce decisions that make themselves look good regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. The bad government hurts us deeply because the federal government controls far more of the peoples’ lives than it did before the Five Tricks began.

The presidents, as the most powerful participants in the legislative process, are in on the tricks, too. The tricks also give the president a more powerful federal government and absolute power to start wars. This is a concern now that Donald Trump has gotten elected in 2016, but should have also been a concern had Hillary Clinton won.

With Congress and the presidents promising everyone something for nothing, the Capitol’s dome might as well bear the sign that is posted in front of Chilkoot Charlie’s bar in Anchorage, Alaska: “We Cheat the Other Guy and Pass the Savings on to You.”

Voters, of course, sense that trickery is going on, even though they don’t understand the sleights of hand that allow elected officials to seem to pull rabbits out of hats. The well-connected and the well-organized do, however, understand the sleights of hand and so know how to work the system for their own special benefit. The rest of us end up feeling cheated. All of this prevents broad agreement on the fairness of a system that can maintain legitimacy despite clashing interests.

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